Multitasking (Part 3 of 3): Managing Multitasking
by H. Les Brown

Stop whatever else you're doing and read this! Multitasking doesn't work! We've already seen that a) multitasking is an illusion—the mind can only focus on one thing at a time; b) multitasking is actually rapid mental task switching; and c) rapid task switching degrades both the quantity and quality of the work.
How can we work effectively without multitasking? The secret is to limit the frequency of rapid task switching. Here are five strategies to use:

  1. Manage expectations;
  2. Plan effectively;
  3. Work efficiently;
  4. Rest frequently; and
  5. Practice task- and self-awareness.

The best way to avoid the multitasking trap entirely is to become skilled at all five of these strategies.

Manage Expectations

The most powerful force behind multitasking is the uninformed expectations of others. Every manager, co-worker and client sees his or her own work project as critical. We therefore have to negotiate expectations and make our commitments clear by a) determining actual deadlines ("Could this wait until Wednesday?"); b) clarifying specifications ("What exactly are you looking for?"); c) resolving conflicts ("This will delay my work on Mary's project—would you check with her to see if she can live with that?"); and d) specifying what we've agreed to do ("OK, I'll get this out by tomorrow night.")
The real problem may be our fear of disappointing or confronting others—our own weak conflict resolution skills. When we can manage expectations effectively, we realize that no one is making us multitask.

Plan Effectively
Reactive behavior never works. By the time we become aware of a problem situation, we're already late! We feel the need to multitask when we're running behind. Ironically, attempting to multitask only makes matters worse. Planning enables us to work on tasks ahead of time. Even when 'stuff happens' (as it invariably will), by staying ahead of the curve, proactive planners can still meet deadlines.
Learn to say 'No.' Say it nicely, of course, and gently—but firmly. When standing dominoes are placed close to each other, topple one, and the rest of the row collapses. If they're placed far enough apart, knocking any one of them down leaves the rest untouched. Saying no to tasks that are not important (those with few or no consequences) can give us the space to keep our 'domino row' intact.
Work Efficiently
Top managers know how to work efficiently. The following five strategies improve efficiency and decrease the need to multitask:

  1. Use external memory. An efficient information storage and retrieval system limits memory lapses, and also provides an effective disaster recovery system. Don't depend on your personal internal memory!
  2. Minimize paperwork. Paperwork gets easily lost or misfiled, and it also requires resources to manage it: It's difficult to store and difficult to retrieve. Properly stored electronic files are simple to search and information can be retrieved easily. Essential paper documentation should be kept to a minimum. Everything else should be quickly processed and destroyed.
  3. Use technology. We have an ever-increasing array of devices from which to choose. Choose reliability over novelty. Keep it simple: Choose the one system that works best for you.
  4. Delegate. Many leaders fail because they believe they're the only ones who can do what they do. The first questions should be, "Do I really need to do this?" and "Who else could do it?" If no one but you can do a specific task, determine if it would be best to develop skills in others on your work team. Build capabilities for long-term success.
  5. Persevere to task completion. Don't get buried in half-finished tasks. If a job is too big to fit in the time allotted for it, break it down. Plan in advance where you want to stop, then complete the job one task at a time.

Rest Frequently

There's a simple rule: If it's not scheduled, it won't happen. That goes double for downtime. Take scheduled breaks away from your desk. When switching tasks, get up and walk around. The mind needs time to 'switch gears,' or it will suffer in terms of reduced efficiency and accuracy.

Practice Task- and Self-Awareness
By attending to task demands and workstyles, we can streamline our work and avoid a number of pitfalls. Become more aware of these eight factors:

  1. Perceptual cues (sights and sounds) trigger task switching. Eliminate extraneous cues that interrupt concentration. At the same time, use cues to signal important events.
  2. Operational complexity determines the level of concentration required. Conversation won't interfere with simple operations. But when tasks are complex, we must minimize interruptions and distractions.
  3. The size of rule sets refers to the number of separate operations that make up a task. While individual operations may be simple, together they may create a very complex whole. In this case, we must either break complex tasks down into simple, standalone operations, or insulate ourselves from distractions.
  4. Task dominance means prioritizing—doing the most important tasks first. Importance is easy to gauge: The more severe the consequences of failure, the more important the task.
  5. Task familiarity determines the difficulty of a task. But familiarity takes time to develop. When task familiarity is low, we must focus undivided attention on the task, at least until we've passed the learning curve.
  6. A short attention span produces all the negative side effects of rapid task switching. Since experts insist that a longer attention span can be self-taught, we can train ourselves to resist the urge to switch tasks until we come to a natural 'break' in the work.
  7. We can expand our response-stimulus interval by using good planning to minimize urgency and stress. Moving at a quick but comfortable pace gives the mind time to recover from distractions.
  8. Knowing our cognitive style allows us to work with our nature rather than against it. A field-dependent person needs to pay attention to details, while a field-independent person needs to avoid becoming fixated on details.


Multitasking—the most expedient approach—is seldom the best one. Faced with global pressures to do more with less, many businesses want to cram more work into less time. This approach does more harm than good. As coaches, we're uniquely qualified to ask the tough questions that will help our clients figure out what 'working smarter, not harder' means in practice. Once we've successfully employed the practices described above to banish multitasking from our own lives, we'll be equipped to help others create more rational and balanced work experiences.

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC, Researcher for Business Coaching Worldwide and co-founder of ProActivation, is an innovator and change strategist who helps clients to effect deep and lasting change in their personal and professional lives. Read more about Les in the WABC Coach Directory. Les can be reached by email at

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