Multi-tasking: Skill or Excuse?

Illustration of women multitaskingThe other night, after dinner, my daughter and I were cleaning up the kitchen. I was washing the dishes, she was drying them and putting them away – or at least that was the task she was assigned. She dried some and put some away and then I noticed that the dishes were piling up beside me. I looked around and found her feeding the cat. She came back, dried a few more dishes and disappeared again, this time she was writing a note to herself about school. She came back again and helped a bit more, then was gone. When I tracked her down she was checking her email to see if her teacher had replied to her about a project. When I questioned her about the mounting stack of dishes on the counter she replied that she was multi-tasking.

That really made me think about the value of multi-tasking as a skill. How often do we let ourselves get pulled in different directions instead of staying focused on the task at hand? Our industry demands everything immediately. I don’t even get actual deadlines anymore, everything is either HOT or due ASAP. This false sense of urgency makes it easy to justify the partial completion of jobs and projects in favor of the most recent crisis that was dumped in your lap.

So, is it a skill to let yourself get interrupted? Is it good time management to drop everything you are doing in order to work on something that is of equal importance as the project you were working on in the first place? Are you using good organizational skills if you start a project and then stop it in favor of working on something that you would rather do? Is multi-tasking just another way of saying, “I get easily distracted”?

In answer to all of those questions I would have to say, “It depends on the situation.” I would love to be able to tell everyone who calls, emails and stops by my desk that I’m busy and that I’ll help them as soon as I wrap up whatever I am working on. However, the reality is that our business is so fast-paced that I think I could only get away with that kind of response a couple times before my boss started getting complaints. The trick really seems to be determining what is truly urgent and what can wait. Once you know that, then you can decide whether you are going to multi-task or just plain task.