I am a unitasker, and say it with pride, even in an environment where we are simultaneously encouraged to focus but are expected to spread as thin as possible.
But it wasn’t always like this. As a perfectionist, I tried for years to master this skill and to display it whenever possible. I wanted to push my limits to prove that I could cover more ground than anyone in half the time.
For the record, I use the word multitasker to refer to someone who very quickly switches activity (otherwise known as doing many things at the same time), the obvious example being someone who during a meeting will write emails, text, update social media, browse the news, and book a flight.
One of my first jobs was as a junior consultant at a marketing agency. Because we had different customers and worked on several projects with similar timelines, jumping between them several times during the day was not strange. I started to interrupt myself to take on simpler tasks in order to “get them out of the way” of the bigger tasks. This included taking calls any time during the day, replying to emails as soon as I received them (even when they weren’t urgent), treating anything that was labeled as urgent like it actually was, bringing my laptop to meetings so that I could continute to do these things during general reports and musings.
When my bosses saw my ability to keep up with this pace while delivering everything on time, they probably assumed that it was my regular MO and began to expect me to multitask. I never complained, in part because I wanted to prove myself, and in part because I lacked the experience to recognize the dangers of what I was doing. As far as I knew, this work pace was a matter of survival and would eventually stabilize.
But you can only be on survival mode for so long, and after months of this, I started to see signs of burnout. Stress levels were going up and it became harder to look forward to going to the office every morning, even though the work was always interesting. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to do anything meaningful before I had to switch activity again. I wasn’t sleeping well, and started working longer hours in order to finish what I had to do. Multitasking was taking its toll.
I am not the only one with this problem. It has been shown that multitasking can negatively affect your performance and information processing, as well as drink up attentional resources. Is it a surprise that we become unproductive, stressed, and tired when we multitask?
When I left the agency and started working as a freelancer, multitasking was the first thing to go. One thing was clear: I had to avoid burnout* if I planned to have a sustainable
It took trial and error, failure and serious introspection to find the most efficient ways to work on my own or in small teams. At the beginning, I used to think that I only needed to keep track of resources such as time, equipment, and programs. But then I expanded the list to include my energy and peace of mind. Frequent interruptions were an obvious external cause of stress and multitasking, but mostly I needed to re-train my brain to concentrate on one thing at a time.
About half of my freelancing work was done in partnership with my best friend, and we discussed often how to improve our processes. Very soon, we realized the need to set clear expectations with our clients. We specified on our contracts how emails would be handled, scheduled time for taking calls, and stated our requirements for “office time” (when we worked from our own desks away from the clients). I became a unitasker, one of my best decisions ever.
At the moment, I am working on going back to employee status. More often than not, however, I find job ads that require multitasking for the position. It is difficult to write applications in which I say that I want the job but also explain that that trait would be harmful to the organization, especially in the field of communication. Wouldn’t it be better to have a person who is focused enough to do all the job activities efficiently and effectively, instead of somebody who is very good at running around like a headless chicken?
I had an interview recently in which I was asked how I get things done and if I had any special trick/mantra/philosophy. I suspect they were trying to see if I could be called a “proactive person” or if I needed constant supervision. My reply was “I prioritize and then do the things on my list one by one until I’m finished”. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it is the compass that has worked best for me. It might even have sounded a bit boring to them. But I hope they don’t believe that interesting and challenging work is a synonym for 40 hours a week of rollercoaster intensity and half-baked deliverables. I know that I don’t.
*Since that job, I have learned first-hand that burnout can be caused by a number of factors other than multitasking. I’m working on them, one at a time 😉