Multitasking: Is it Effective and How Much Can You Really Do?

Multitasking has two flavors. There’s what I’m going to call strategic (workload) and tactical (hyperactivity) multitasking.

Strategic multitasking is your backlog–how many projects you have going at any one time. They might not all need attention at the same time, but they are all on your to-do list. Tactical multitasking is what you’re doing right now, which can include your actual projects as well as your other distractions–voice, text, email, instant message, and (almost forgot) someone actually in the room talking with you.

Strategically or tactically, it’s easy to get distracted.

Since I am not a clinical psychologist or workplace efficiency expert, allow me a brief cop-out and say that appropriate task levels are different for each person. However, for the sake of discussion, I’ll throw out a few suggestions and guidelines to help you maintain your mental health in a busy, dynamic work environment.

Know Your Limits

Whatever your workload is, it’s important that you and your leader(s) know what your limits are–how much is too much? For instance, before I started freelancing, my “sweet spot” for work tasks was three to five concurrent activities–it’s way more than that now, but that’s a story for another day. Below three tasks, my mind wanders. More than five, and my level of heck rises, my blood pressure spikes, and my Irish color turns my face crimson. Maybe you’re happier with no backlog. Maybe you like a long list of things to do as a form of motivation. Regardless, the more tasks and deadlines multiply, the more likely you are to get distracted and feel stress.

Set Boundaries

If you knowHeckometer your limits–how much you can do within a given amount of time–that’s an important metric to share with your managers, peers, or customers. In fact, I modified a Homeland Security alert sign into a “Heckometer,” letting people know how stressed I was and whether it was safe to visit my cubicle.

Some folks have a mental block about telling people “No.” If I’m on a hot deadline for an important project, I am likely to say it–especially if someone has a lower-priority request. However, if you’re in a “can do!” environment, that response might be seen as problematic, unhelpful, rude, or even job-threatening. That’s why I don’t say it very often. A more polite way of saying it is “Yes, if…” Meaning, “Yes, I can do that for you, if you can move your deadline or change your requirements so it gets done the way you want it.” Again, that can be perceived as rude or unhelpful, so please substitute more diplomatic language, as necessary.

Another thing about boundaries…it’s usually good to set some personal rules about who and what you will respond to and by which medium. A phone call from a family member’s doctor takes priority over an email or text offering a coupon for Barnes & Noble. A text from your boss can trump a verbal conversation with your significant other about dinner plans (or perhaps not–is it your anniversary?). The important thing is to have some boundaries and let others know what they are.

However, if you find yourself too distracted by emails and other electronic messaging systems, you might choose to go “dark” on some programs during specific time frames or when you’re very busy. Instant Messenger (IM) systems often have a “busy” signal so people won’t bug you (I have a simpler solution for IM–I try not to use it). Sometimes it’s best to turn off the machines. And sometimes you need to leave one or two channels open so important messages get through.

Set Priorities

The easiest way to avoid raising your level of heck is to figure out–on your own or in cooperation with your customers–a standard for setting priorities. If all of the work you do has the same level of effort and priority, with no emergencies, then doing things in deadline order–most imminent deadline first–makes the most sense.

If you face a lot of “emergencies” or last-minute requests, then you might have to put things in order by situation or customer. (I’ll save the discussion about “urgent vs. important” for another day.) Are you working on a report for a mid-level manager when a high-level executive’s request comes through the door? The answer there is pretty simple, though you might want to let that mid-level executive know about the delay.

Another way to get through your to-do list is by task size. I’m in favor of doing the one-page, quick-hit items first so I can free up the rest of my time to work on longer or more involved documents. Others prefer the opposite approach–going after the “big rocks” first, then clearing out the short one-off tasks at the end of the day. Sorting by task size can be a useful approach when the priority and deadline levels are approximately equal.

All this said, “emergencies” and sudden priority changes can happen–when they do, you need to be polite, responsive, and flexible. These things happen.

Put Things In Perspective

I have yet to encounter an actual life-or-death emergency that depended on me writing a paragraph to save the day. Maybe if you’re in Occupational Safety or Crisis Communications, this can happen to you. However, one thing that helps reduce your level of heck is to keep a sense of proportion and balance in your work. I’m convinced that some individuals use the word “emergency” just to get a rise out of people or to activate others’ stress responses. There are I’m-trying-to-look-good-for-my-boss “emergencies” and there are shooter-in-the-building emergencies. Recognize the difference and don’t let yourself get sucked into someone else’s drama.

The best thing you can do when someone whose hair is (figuratively) on fire and vocal output is on fast-forward is to pause, let them speak, and then calmly ask them to slow down and repeat themselves so you get all the facts and understand what they’re requesting.

I recall being told at one point that I “didn’t take things seriously” because the individual felt I was not giving an “emergency” request the appropriate level of concern. On the contrary. I’m quite serious about my work. I simply won’t match my mood to fit someone else’s hysteria.

Forward Thinking

In the end, there’s no getting past the fact that we are getting “busier,” whether it’s due to actual workloads, changing priorities, too many people using different communication channels to reach us, or a combination of all of these. The trick for the technical communicator is knowing your priorities and doing your best to ensure that you’re meeting them.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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