Igniting Workplace Enthusiasm

Process Improvement

The Pros and Cons of Multitasking

by Dale Carnegie Training India

April 26, 2016

Question: Would you want your team member to simultaneously work on the four critical reports he/she is supposed to submit on Monday?
Question: Would you want your surgeon to operate on three other patients while he/she is performing a critical surgery on you?

These questions throw limelight on the modern workplace professional’s eternal dilemma, “when and why should I multi-task?”. To get some answers, let’s define multi-tasking and then discover some pros and cons associated with it.

Simply, multi-tasking is the ability to do more than one thing/task at a time as described in an IBM paper in 1965 highlighting the capability of a computer to do so. Human multi-tasking is actually the ability of our brain to switch focus between two or more activities. Is it alright to then switch attention frequently? Well, in some cases, yes.

A 2013 study that required participants to perform cognitive tasks while sitting in a quiet room and again while cycling found that their cycling speed was faster while performing the cognitive tasks, with the most improvement during the six easiest cognitive tasks. As the cognitive tasks got harder, they started impinging on the amount of attention available to perform both tasks, so participants didn’t cycle quite so fast.

Our point? There are some profits to reap by multi-tasking. Today, it has evolved into different versions too. The first one is genuine multitasking: speaking on the phone and checking our bank accounts online; speaking to a colleague and filling out an office form. Genuine multitasking is possible, but at least one of the tasks needs to be so practiced as to be done without thinking.
Then there’s task switching, needed when you, let’s say, face the challenge of creating a presentation for your boss while also fielding phone calls for your boss and keeping an eye on email in case your boss wants you.

Task switching is often confused with a third, quite different activity — the guilty pleasure of disappearing down an never-ending click-hole of celebrity gossip and social media updates. “What we’re often calling multitasking is in fact internet addiction,” says Shelley Carson, a psychologist and author of Your Creative Brain. “It’s a compulsive act, not an act of multitasking.”

A final kind of multitasking isn’t a way of getting things done but simply the condition of having a lot of things to do. The car needs to be taken in for a service. The nanny can’t pick up the kids from school today. Having a lot of things to do is not the same as doing them all at once. It’s just life 

A moment comes when the once productive behavior start turning on us and eat us from within. As we continue in the habit of frequently switching attention to different order of priorities, our ability to get distracted becomes stronger and in most cases, dangerous too. Ask ex-CIO and VP, engineering at Google, Douglas Merrill and he says that our brains just aren’t equipped for multitasking tasks that do require brainpower. Instead of actually helping us, multitasking works against us. It’s making us less efficient, not more.

How does it impact organizations? Try, $650 billion a year !!

RescueTime, a company that analyzes computer habits and draws its data from 40,000 people who have tracking software on their computers, found that on average the worker also stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day. The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according to research firm Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work.

So, what are some insights that we can derive from the above data? There are certain conditions in which multi-tasking should be exercised, as it has some short-term benefits.


  1. Simple tasks allow for a fast switch in mental focus.
  2. Multitasking provides progression on multiple duties that must be performed.
  3. It creates a habit of adaptability.
  4. It allows for sanity within a world of chaos.


  1. Multitasking leaves less time for recreation.
  2. There is a limited amount of energy every day.
  3. It eliminates certain personal skills.
  4. It becomes more difficult to accomplish something that is important.

So what is your multitasking style and is it helping or hindering you to get the important things done?


(The writer is a Dale Carnegie India Training Consultant- Job Varghese and he can be reached on Twitter @trainer_job)


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