Multitasking is Make Believe

By Deborah Crocker

How many times have you seen multitasking listed as a skill on a resume? Or what about hearing the interview question, “Are you a good multitasker?” For me, it feels like a million times. Yet despite its success at positioning itself as a sought-after value (and forever validated by the fact that no one wants to say they’re bad at it), let’s be clear:  multitasking is make believe! It’s literally not possible for the human brain to do (Read this scientific debunking of the myth of multitasking).  So let’s stop this nonsense!

As a development professional, being detail oriented while managing multiple projects simultaneously is mandatory. But this is very different from the idea of multitasking. We are doing nonprofit professionals a great disservice by asking them to be multitasking geniuses. When people try to do numerous tasks at the same time, accidents occur. Like the time my team printed out a gala invitation that cost $5,000 and it didn’t have the date on it. We were “multitasking.” Then there was the time I submitted a full six-figure grant proposal to a foundation but failed to provide the budget . . . oops, multitasking. Or the time a colleague listed one of the nonprofit’s largest donors as deceased on an annual report . . . again, multitasking. 

Instead of listing  “multitasking” on a job opportunity as a requirement, it should say “focused, detailed oriented, and conscientious.”

Multitasking is the equivalent of making mistakes. What people really need help with is learning to manage multiple activities, and more specifically, how to focus on one task at a time. This seems simple enough, but we are living in a world of constant distractions, and people have become accustomed to information coming at them nonstop. By learning how to focus on one task at a time—and to do it well—once a task is done, we can check it off our list and move on to the next.

Here are four steps to set you on a non-multitasking but highly focused work week: 

  1. Start by making a list of your top three priorities for the week.  Look at them daily to keep yourself on track. You’ll feel a great deal of satisfaction when you check them off at the end of the week.
  1. Turn off your desktop notifications when you are trying to get something done. Oh the distractions! They are never ending, so shut them down.
  1. Make space on your calendar for the big tasks—writing a proposal or a letter to a donor— you need to make space to get these things done well. They will not happen magically.
  1. Utilize a 24-hour rule of communication. You do not need to respond to people within minutes of their outreach. But you do need to respond within 24 hours, even if it’s a quick “I got your email. Thank you! I’ll be in touch by the end of the week with a response.” Obviously there are exceptions to this rule—like your boss—but the point is to keep you focused on your task rather than being distracted by another one. And honestly, even people in your exception group can wait an hour or more. 

So give yourself a break. Stop trying to achieve the impossible. You are not a great multitasker. But you could be a great, detailed oriented, conscientious worker—which might be a mouthful but it is so much more effective.

Stay focused. And stop multitasking (it’s make believe!).

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