Is Multitasking Overrated?

Employers often see the ability to multitask as a necessary skill for a wide variety of jobs.  It makes sense that in today’s fast-paced world, employers are interested in candidates that can successfully manage multiple responsibilities at the same time.  However, specifically seeking out employees who can multitask, or focus their attention on more than one task at once, might not give you the results you’re looking for.

When employers say they want their employees to be able to multitask, they generally mean they want them to be able to perform a lot of different tasks throughout their day and to be able to manage their own time.  For instance, your administrative assistant needs to be able to send emails, edit documents, and update schedules all while being available to answer the phone.  But does balancing these responsibilities truly qualify as multitasking?

Imagine your employee receives a phone call from a client while writing an important email.  If they continue to write while they talk on the phone, the quality of both the email and the phone exchange is actually more likely to suffer than if the employee had focused their attention on one task at a time.

That’s because the human brain simply isn’t able to process more than one piece of information at a time.  When we “multitask,” we’re not actually focusing on two things at once, but rapidly shifting our attention between two things.  And as you may have guessed, that’s not great for productivity.  In fact, a study found that multitasking can reduce productivity by up to 40% when compared to just focusing on one task at a time.  It’s hard for your brain to switch gears between each task, and that makes it very easy to miss details, make mistakes, and forget pieces of information.

Increased multitasking can also make employees more susceptible to distractions.   Constantly switching one’s focus makes it more difficult to filter out information that’s not relevant.  This makes it much harder for workers to regulate their habits and behavior at work, also causing a drop in productivity.

But that doesn’t change the fact that employers need employees who can manage a variety of different tasks throughout the day.  Luckily, there are other things to look for in a job candidate that can offer more valuable insight into whether an applicant can successfully juggle multiple responsibilities.

One of these traits is cognitive aptitude.  Cognitive aptitude addresses problem-solving ability, critical thinking, attention to detail, and the ability to take in and apply new information.  It isn’t a measure of a person’s ability to divide their energy and attention between multiple tasks, but rather the ability to focus on the task at hand and adapt to changing situations as needed.  In this way, it gets to the heart of a lot of the characteristics we associate with multitasking.  It’s also one of the best predictors of success in a job, more so than resumes or even interviews.

When it comes to personality fit for roles that involve multiple responsibilities, you may want to look for candidates who are conscientious.  Conscientiousness is a personality trait that relates to reliability and organization.  People who display a high degree of conscientiousness are hardworking, deliberate, and highly motivated.  This trait is also strongly correlated with workplace productivity and performance.

Even though the myth of the multitasker has been debunked, it’s important for employees to be able to navigate distractions and stay on top of multiple responsibilities at a time.  By knowing what to look for in a job candidate, you can gain even more valuable insight on your applicants and make smarter hiring decisions.