Is Multitasking Still a Skill to Boast About?

Multi Tasking Cartoon

Over the last 4-5 years I have read many articles (popular as well as academic) that have consistently tried to educate people that multitasking is inefficient, error-prone and negatively impacts the mental health of the so-called multitasker.

However, I still receive job applications with resumes that highlight the multitasking skill of the applicant. So, I chased this a bit, and discovered that even consultants helping people apply for jobs advice them to highlight their multitasking skills (or is it a single skill?). I have also found ‘multi-tasking skill’ as a checklist item in the interview evaluation forms of a few organizations.

Evolution of the Multitasking concept

The word ‘multitasking’ first appeared in the description of the capabilities of an IBM computer (System/ 360) in 1965. People started using the word for human beings in the 1980s as a desirable skill and something that enhances productivity.

So, what is multitasking in human beings?

Human multitasking is the apparent performance by an individual of handling more than one task, or activity, at the same time. The term is derived from computer multitasking.


In the last ten years, multiple controlled experiments and studies have been conducted to understand the concept of multitasking in humans. The research consistently shows that humans cannot pay attention to multiple things at the same time. So they are essentially doing rapid context switching. This increases the total time taken and also increases the errors. People who typically multitask, perform poorly (compared to people who do not typically multitask) even when they are asked to do tasks sequentially.

Multitasking is Not Recommended

So, unless it is absolutely necessary, do not multitask (I am using the word multitasking as is commonly used – actually it is some kind of rapid context switching). And do not take pride in your multitasking. Here are a bunch of reasons:

  1. It could be dangerous – like talking on the phone while driving, or texting while walking on a busy road. In some professions, trying to simultaneously do more things than what is absolutely required may be fatal to others (surgeons, air traffic controllers, pilots, etc.).
  2. It is slower and less efficient. According to some studies productivity can reduce by around 40% when you multitask.
  3. It is error-prone. Research consistently shows that people make more errors while multitasking. So, the tasks that you get “First Time Right” reduce significantly.
  4. There is no sense of satisfaction of completion, because there are multiple tasks in progress, and the sense completion of one task  is overshadowed by the rest of the ‘work-in-progress’.
  5. Communication becomes unclear and unsatisfactory – in professional and personal life. Because you cannot pay continuous attention to what others are saying. Nor can you convey a complete concept that requires long communication. This could impact relationships too.
    For example, because you were on the phone while typing an email, you may mark the email to the wrong persons, or send the email with partial / wrong information – thereby creating confusion that needs further communication and sorting out.
  6. Multitasking increases stress. When we start to drop balls,and make mistakes our feeling of overwhelm increases, and the stress keeps building.
  7. Multitasking reduces the IQ (temporarily) by around 10 points – roughly equivalent of missing one night’s sleep – for people who are already sleep deprived or already have a low IQ, it may be a disaster :-).
  8. Multitasking becomes more difficult with age. As all of us are ageing at the same rate (1 day per day, 1 year per year), we will be able to do less and less of ‘multitasking’ as time flies.
  9. Multitasking while eating can make you overeat – so it is not aligned with healthy eating.
  10. Need to multitask may be addictive – you may be soon be unable to focus on a single task for a long duration, even if that is essential (like answering a 2 hour examination without your cellphone or tablet or laptop or TV or favorite book).


Here are some aspects of multitasking for which I could not get very definite answers.

  • Does gender play a role in the ability to multitask?
  • Are some individuals significantly better than others at multitasking?
  • Does multitasking reduce attention span? Or do individuals who lack attention span typically tend to multitask?
  • Can we train people to be good at multitasking?
  • Are there some combination of tasks that are conducive to multitasking? What are their characteristics? (For example – it is perfectly natural to speak to someone seated in a car while you are driving, but not to speak on the cellphone;  one can listen to music and answer emails, but one cannot cook while answering emails).

Read more about multitasking and how to better handle the situation in the article: More on MultitaskingClick here if you have not yet read it.

Please feel free to share your views, experiences, and queries, using the “comments” feature available. You may also forward the link to this post to your friends, colleagues, and anyone else who may be interested.


Nothing Official About It! – The views presented above are in no manner reflective of the official views of any organization, community, group, institute, or association. They may not even be the official views of the author :-).

I am Rajesh Naik. I am an author, management consultant and trainer, helping IT and other tech companies improve their processes and performance. I also specialize in CMMI® (DEV and SVC), People CMM® and Balanced Scorecard. I am a CMMI Institute certified/ authorized Instructor and Lead Appraiser for CMMI® and People CMM®. I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. For more information please click here.

3 thoughts on “Is Multitasking Still a Skill to Boast About?”

  1. I was reflecting on some of my own habits. And here is my self analysis around multi-tasking:

    1. I tend to do multi tasking when my “to-do list” piles up. There are times when I feel I achieve a lot more throughput but this happens when I am doing logically related tasks at the same time (your question no. 5).

    2. There are times when I get stuck on some task (mind sort of switches off) and I amuse myself by switching to an unrelated task in order to get a sense that I am making progress and utilizing my time well. However, more often than not, I end up not completing either of the tasks! And exasperated, I then do lots of random context switching (from work related to recreation to idle gossiping) just to find some flow (refer to your earlier blog on “finding flow”).

    3. I have seen lots of people with “attention deficit syndrome” do a lot of “context switching” (this term you have used seems more apt than multi tasking); this syndrome is also seen among kids and CEOs of companies :))

    4. Lots of literature talk about women being more efficient in multi tasking (balancing the professional life with house work, handling children and spouses and demanding in laws). I have seen the lady in my life do a fair bit of multi tasking; have also seen her totally exasperated on days she claims “nothing worked for me today” and ends up exhorting me to take up “multi tasking” (read “domestic chores”).

    In summary however, I know that doing one task at a time with complete focus has always helped me do it more efficiently in terms of speed and higher 1st time rights.

    In this age when demands on one’s attention are numerous, and avenues for distractions are plentiful, context switching may happen inadvertently and many of us may be losing control without realizing. And this could be a root cause for “stress”. Multi tasking could be the silent killer.

    And hence all of us may need solutions that help cut ourselves off from distractions and re-focus. One task, one over-arching purpose at a time. Places like Ujjire (the naturopathy center) can help cure people of such syndromes and anchor the meandering mind.

    I completed my response to this blog of yours at 10.45 pm IST in 2015. Did not want to start 2016 with a carry forward task. Cheers for 2016. Look forward to more of your cartoons and satirical quips, book reviews etc..etc..

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