Multitasking refers to the ability of an individual or machine to perform more than one task at the same time. In the field of human resources, multitasking is a popular term that is often used to describe how busy managers or business practitioners are able to accomplish ever more in the same amount of time. The term was popularized in the late 1990s with the increasing move to a 24-hours-per-day, seven-days-per-week work and service culture. As globalization has continued to expand the number of time zones in which a business may operate, the need to be available around the clock has also expanded. Many use the term "24-7-365" as a shorthand for a growing reality for many businesses that feel they must be accessible around the clock and every day of the year. To keep up, people often feel that they must multitask. In fact, the term multitasking is now used regularly to describe what we do not only while at work but also in our roles as parents, friends, family members, and any number of other roles we perform as we try to balance our business lives and our personal lives.
MULTITASKING IN THE WORKPLACE
According to an article in Manufacturing Engineering, in the world of project teams and multitasking, professionals often find relationships blurring as to the difference between activities inside and outside the organization. The multitasking abilities of both individuals and teams are important as companies stay connected with customers, suppliers, and partners, and as new products and services are continually developed. Multitasking is becoming the norm as the amount of information a manager or professional feels he or she needs to process increases at a staggering rate.
Technological developments are emphasizing the trend towards multitasking as they make it possible, for example, to receive and reply to e-mail messages while attending an awards banquet or student concert. The demands we place on the machines we use are also growing as a part of this trend. For example, computers can now commonly perform or execute several programs at the same time, which is a form of multitasking or multiprocessing. In the computer arena, multiprocessing sometimes implies that more than one central processing unit (CPU) is involved. When only one CPU is involved, the computer may switch from one program to another quickly enough to give the appearance of simultaneous execution.
In another example of multitasking machines, people are demanding multitasking gasoline pumps. In addition to dispensing gasoline, new gas pumps are also giving travel directions, current weather reports, and stock quotes via an Internet link. Some pumps even let customers order food from neighborhood restaurants. Given the technologically complex and competitively intense environment in today's business world, the trend toward multitasking is expected to continue, for both individuals and machines.
THE DOWNSIDE OF MULTITASKING
Many experienced multitaskers have experienced an unexpected thing when, for example, their e-mail service was disabled for a period of time. They discovered that they were actually more productive during that period of time. What causes this increased productivity? The neurologist Richard Restak explains it this way in his book "The New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind," The human brain works most efficiently "on a single task and for sustained rather than intermittent or alternating periods of time…. This doesn't mean that we can't perform a certain amount of multitasking but we do so at a decreased efficiency and accuracy." Very similar results have been found in other well publicized studies—one carried out at the University of Michigan and another by scientists at Carnegie Mellon—namely that as the number of tasks undertaken simultaneously increases, the efficiency and accuracy with which each is done declines.
Most people these days are so accustomed to multi-tasking that they don't even realize they are doing it. However, a conscious effort to cut back on multitasking may actually help us to get more work done and done more efficiently. New ways of more efficiently managing the many business tasks that must be done regularly will be developed. In the meantime, it is worth noting that reducing one's own multitasking habits may help increase one's productivity and reduce one's sense of overload.
Brown, Arnold. "The All Purpose Employee." Across the Board. May 2000.
Henig, Robin Marantz. "Driving? Maybe You Shouldn't Be Reading This." The New York Times. 13 July 2004.
Koucky, Sherri, and Stephan Mraz. "Multitasking Gas Pump." Machine Design. 3 August 2000.
Restak, Richard. The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind. Rodale Books, August 2003.
"Surviving in the New World." Manufacturing Engineering. December 1999.
Wallis, Claudia. "The Multitasking Generation." Time. 27 March 2006.
Hillstrom, Northern Lights
updated by Magee, ECDI