The Consequences of Multi-Tasking for Managers

Do you ever feel like work is a circus and you're the juggler? Do you have to juggle multiple tasks in order to give your best performance? Has multi-tasking become a habit? If so, you might want to reconsider your tight-rope walk.

In part one of our series, we explored The Benefits of Multi-Tasking. We learned that the brain actually isn't capable of giving attention to more than one stimuli at once. The process should technically be called "task-switching." While task-switching has its advantages, there are serious consequences to frequent task-switching. If you want a long, healthy career, learn to navigate this balancing act.


Task-Switching is Addictive

Do you often find yourself in a constant rhythm of multi-tasking and can't stop? You're actually developing a negative mental habit. Research studies show that rapidly switching between short tasks is neurologically addictive. When switching between non-intensive stimuli, the brain releases the chemical dopamine which causes cravings. Your brain starts to crave the feeling of instant gratification and you eventually wind up searching for tiny tasks to complete. Small victories basically become your drug.

This cycle might create a smokescreen of productivity, but in reality, it prevents you from focusing on priorities. If you have a big, mentally taxing project to tackle, you wind up procrastinating by focusing on more gratifying short tasks. Your brain is essentially rewarding you for getting distracted. Even if the smaller tasks feel good, they might not actually matter in the grand scheme of responsibilities. 

The key is to find healthier ways to feel satisfied and rewarded. Studies suggest that exercise helps balance dopamine levels and absorb serotonin. If you're craving accomplishment, try jumping up and down or doing a couple jumping jacks. Brief physical activity will help balance your neurotransmitter levels so you can focus on what matters.


Task-Switching Impairs Memory

Task-switching not only disrupts your neurotransmitter levels, it also puts unnecessary stress on your body. Research shows that rapidly switching focus increases your cortisol levels. When your cortisol levels go up, your memory recall ability goes down.

Your brain is similar to a computer. When you have multiple windows open and several applications running, response time starts to slow down. When you try to switch between programs, it requires more CPU/memory. Performance starts to decrease, because the system is overloaded. And what happens when a computer freezes up? Data gets lost!

When quickly jumping back and forth between tasks, your brain can't keep up with processing all of the data. The stress on resources causes your brain to freeze up. It can't retain all of the information that quickly. Multi-tasking increases your probability of mistakes and therefore requires more time and energy to correct mistakes. In the long-run, you aren't really saving any time at all.

Instead, take the time to complete one task and then move onto the next one. Give your brain time to sort all of the information in a clear, concise fashion.


Task-Switching Destroys Trust

One of the most common reasons for task-switching is answering phone calls, texts and emails. That little notification on your phone can be the biggest distraction of the day. Even if you're in the middle of an intense work-flow, you stop to answer the phone for fear of consequences. But what's the worst that could happen? 

The majority of calls, texts and emails do not need to be responded to immediately. If you browse through your email, you might find a pattern that your superior asks you respond to by the end of the day. Or if you scroll through your texts, you'll notice very few messages were life-or-death emergencies. Waiting an hour or two, normally won't affect productivity at all.

There are very few times when it is absolutely necessary to drop everything you're doing and respond to a message. If your superior contacts you multiple times throughout the day and expects you to answer instantly, then there is a deeper problem to address. Does your superior doubt your capabilities? Does he or she have problems with organization? Responding to messages immediately indicates a fear from one or both parties. You should both trust that the other can manage responsibilities in a timely matter.

If someone demands instant responses, schedule a one-on-one chat. Have an honest discussion and dig down deep to find the root cause of his or her fear. Use your Emotional Intelligence to consider the other person's perspective. Then, explain how his or her interruptions interfere with productivity. Use data to support your case. Find a solution where each party feels respected.

Master Compartmentalization

The secret to mastering the fine line of task-switching is to reduce the probability of it altogether. Learn to compartmentalize your tasks and plan ahead. Avoid situations that would tempt you to multi-task.

Stay Organized: Practice Balancing Accessibility and Productivity. Before you start work, make a list of your responsibilities for the day. Make note of the most mentally taxing projects that require intense focus. Make a habit of writing down notes and setting up reminders.

Use Project Management Tools: Platforms like AsanaTrello and BaseCamp, provide dashboards for managers to keep track of projects. You can create projects, assign tasks and establish deadlines. Keep all correspondence streamlined in one location where everyone can provide updates.

Schedule Tasks in Blocks: Assign a certain length of time dedicated to each task. For instance, allot one hour for Managing Email, one hour for a staff meeting, two hours to create a presentation, etc. Make sure to keep a strict schedule. Embrace that "done" is better than "perfect." 

Establish a Communication System: Define boundaries for phone calls, texts and emails. Explain to your superior when he or she should expect to receive updates from you. Let your staff know what times you're available and what times you need to focus on your own duties.

Refuel Mental Energy: Don't forget to include time for food and stretch breaks! Dedicating time  refresh time will actually improve your focus and increase your stamina. You'll actually make fewer mistakes if you commit to refreshing your energy every two or three hours.


While task-switching may seem like a productive approach to work, sometimes it can do more harm than good. Now that you know the pros and cons of task-switching, you can use them to your advantage. Use your best judgement to determine when it's worth the risk and when it's not. If you master balance, you'll be the star of the show!


Need help getting organized and finding balance? Get one-on-one professional coaching with the SK4M Connect program.