9 Tips for More Effective Multitasking

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on April 20, 2010 in: Time Management Strategies


For busy professionals, multitasking is a must-have skill that allows you to shoehorn more productivity into an already packed schedule.

It’s an often-maligned skill, too, because of the frequently quoted problem that multitasking results in poorer quality work. But I disagree. Like other skills, I believe that multitasking is something you can develop and improve and use strategically. Here are some tips to help you do that:

  • Start small. Don’t multitask your rocket science work AND your brain surgery work right out of the gate. Instead, multitask a few different less-essential things until you get good at multitasking.
  • Triage your work. Not everything should be multitasked. Driving, for example, should remain separate from reading, talking on the phone, putting on make-up, etc. But a lot of things – things that aren’t life-and-death situations – are able to be multitasked. Multitasking on billable work is debatable. I’m personally of the opinion that if you charge by the hour, you shouldn’t be multitasking billable hours. But people who bill by the project and can take as long as they want on something might be okay with multitasking. Especially if they…
  • Know the bandwidth limit. Even awesome multitaskers have a limit. It’s like bandwidth. You only have so much mental capacity to use at once. Most tasks don’t take up all of your bandwidth. Some tasks (like driving your car) should probably take more bandwidth than you think they should. But talking on the phone to a coworker doesn’t need to take up as much bandwidth as it does.
  • Group like projects together. The most effective kind of multitasking is when you group similar projects together. For example, if you manage half a dozen Twitter accounts, and you want to spend a focused amount of time on Twitter, you can multitask this easily.
  • Prep for multitasking. Before you multitask, make sure you have everything ready to go. The purpose of multitasking is quickly lost if you have to get up from your desk or if you spend your time searching for a folder or opening programs. (That’s another reason why grouping like projects together is a good multitasking idea).
  • Keep a list. A list of “multitaskable” tasks should be handy. This should be stuff that you can do whenever you have some extra bandwidth. Email sorting, quick email responses, filing, Twitter-follower-list-adding, reviewing your schedule for the day. These are low bandwidth activities that you always need to do. Keep that list nearby. When you discover some extra bandwidth, pull out the list.
  • Set time limits on your work and focus on improving your multitasking skill. The purpose of multitasking is to get more work done in less time. So if you have two projects that each take an hour, and it takes you two hours to do them both, then it doesn’t matter if you do them at the same time or if you do them consecutively; there’s no time saved. Instead, focus on doing both of them well in 1 to 1.5 hours in total. This will take some time because multitasking is a skill.
  • Have a goal. This is a good time management tip for anyone, whether or not you want to multitask. But if you do multitask, it will make your multitasking easier. That’s because consciously knowing the goal can help you unconsciously work toward it. And, you won’t be half-heartedly working around the project without a clear purpose; you’ll be actively working toward the goal.
  • Get into the zone. Multitasking isn’t something you do to avoid real effort. It’s something you do when you are focused and operating at your peak. If you find that you’re trying to multitask but you’re only doing one thing at a time, put something aside until you can focus. I don’t juggle but it seems kind of like juggling: You see jugglers starting with 3 items and then once they have a rhythm, they seem to be able to effortlessly add more in later. Compare that to someone who tries to just START juggling 17 items at once. Seems harder to do. (Back me up here, jugglers!)

Multitasking is a muscle that needs to be worked. When you schedule your day, sit down and quickly identify two or three projects you can multitask at the same time. Work at it. Evaluate how you did. Try again another day. Build your multitasking muscle strategically.

Start juggling!

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