How To Know When Multi-Tasking Is A Bad Idea

It’s hard to keep all your balls in the air, but a little multi-tasking can help—until you drop them all over the floor because you also tried to answer a text or something. There are times when doing two things at once will make you less effective than focusing on one task. Here’s how to tell when that’s happened.

As is often the case, today’s answers come via a well-constructed flow chart made by Fast Company. The chart breaks the type of tasks people tend to stack on top of one another into categories labelled 1, 2, and 3, one being good times to multi-task, three being the no-go zone. It’s kind of common sense stuff, but perhaps not something we can think clearly about when in the midst of a bunch of projects.

1. Go For It

These are tasks that support each other, and cause no distractions. For example, taking notes during a meeting, or analysing data while you’re entering it. They also include “intermittent focus” tasks, like making a phone call then pausing to take notes afterwards about the call. You might also stop what you’re doing to complete something that is causing a distraction that makes it impossible to work.

To be honest, these all sound like individual tasks to me and not like multi-tasking at all. Of course it’s relatively easy to stop what you’re doing and do something else. The challenge there might be how to avoid getting distracted away by task after task. Planning what you are combining ahead of time with conscious thought about how layering activities is productive might be the most useful advice here.

2. Proceed With Caution

Here’s where things get more complicated. Are you on your email during a meeting? Working on something else while on the phone with a client? Sitting on an important panel and fiddling with notes? You are risking missing something, no matter how confident you are that your inbox is more important than the people right in front of you. It’s also a bad idea to multi-task when addressing something complex, like a contract. You don’t want to sell your soul away by accident.

Think about your most common distraction at work and if it’s a behaviour you can set aside. It may be making your life harder rather than easier.

3. Don’t Even Think About It

This is a surprisingly wholesome category. Fast Company doesn’t think you should be multi-tasking if you’re trying to do the following important things: relaxing or spending time with family. Don’t check your work email or call clients when you’re with the people who are important to you outside of work. That’s sweet, though perhaps difficult for many.

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They also say it’s a bad idea to multi-task when the thing in front of you is extremely important and requires all your focus, like interviewing for a job. That wouldn’t look great. Also, don’t text and drive—but we all know that, right? Again, seems like common sense, but plenty of us try to do too many things at once. Pick your focus and stick with it—then pause and look at social media. You’ve earned it.

You can see the visual for all this here.


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