Over the last few years the ability to multitask became nearly a requirement on job descriptions. In interviews an interviewee will be asked how well he or she can multitask. I know people who pride themselves in being able to do multiple things at once. But the truth of the matter is there is a HUGE down side to multitasking that actually decreases a person’s ability to be productive. In fact a 2007 survey by the New York Times sited that it cost U.S business approximately $650 billion a year due to distractions, much which are caused by multitasking.

A person who is talking on the phone, IMing and trying to write a report is unable to maintain the focus needed to accomplish task accurately. The brain requires time to refocus from one thought process to the next, which is not an option for an employee, the brain does it automatically. This being wired in to our brain actually is taking away from the person’s productivity as well as lessens the quality of work being performed.

Stress levels increase with distractions whether they are voluntarily brought on by the employee or if they are unwelcome interruptions like telephone calls or people walking up to their desk to ask a question.  This is further complicated by the brains inability to remember important information due to over stimulation.

According to an article in the New York Post it was reported that over stimulation (multitasking) with our children today may actually have adverse affects on brain development leading to a lack of analytical skills.  While many students claim that multitasking helps them get things done, there is a strong possibility they could be damaging their brain’s ability function to its potential.

So what do we do? You are a professional in the workplace. Interruptions are going to happen; they aren’t a choice. How do you manage these interruptions and limit them so you can be more focused and productive?


To be quite frank, most multitasking I see is self-induced. There is a feeling with some that they have to be doing multiple things at once. For example it seems everyone has to bring their laptop to meetings with them. Someone is presenting information, yet there are ten people sitting around the table faking listening to the presenter all while IMing, answering emails, looking down at their BlackBerry like a kid passing a note in class or working on reports. It is humanly impossible to be 100% attentive to what is going on in a meeting an also be carrying on a conversation via email or IM (not to mention completely rude to the person who has worked on his or her presentation).

This is the easiest to control; simply leave your technology at your desk. It’s okay to leave your laptop hooked to it’s docking station and place your phone in your desk. In fact it is liberating! A few times of trying this you will find that your brain appreciates the rest of only having to focus on one thing and you won’t be as mentally tired at the end of the day as you begin to make this a habit.


We all get people who love to stop by for a chat. Whether it’s Jennifer talking about the latest management decision or Frank who just has to tell you about his new car; there are those who have no problem interrupting your moment of focus.

To help minimize the drive-by distractions remove any extra chairs in your area. Whether you work in an office or cubical, get the chairs out so people who stop by can’t park their rear in comfort. If you are an executive with table and chairs for small meetings, place them to the furtherst side of the room. People have a tendency to move on if they aren’t comfortable.


With technology today people, especially our loved ones, don’t think twice about sending a text or making a ‘quick call’ to us. Kids want to ask what color socks go with their outfit to sharing about how they just kicked a winning field goal. The spouse sees no problem texting to ask about the evening’s dinner plans, even though it might be right in the middle of one of your important training sessions.

It’s important to remind your family that you are at work, not at the ballgame. Employers are not paying us to discuss homework or dinner plans; they pay for our time and attention. The best way to avoid interruptions is to turn off personal devices. Of course none of us want to miss that possible emergency phone call, but there are ways around that. For example tell your family to use your personal cell for casual calls and you’ll check it on occasion; however if it is an emergency to use your office number, perhaps of an administrative contact who they can relay that it is urgent that you call.


Some of the most productive people I know do not feel the need to live on email and IM. In fact they only turn these tools on at certain times of the day to avoid distractions. Granted, I am a huge fan of IM. You can ask quick questions and get fast answers without engaging in long conversations. It can be a tool to work to your advantage, but…we all know those certain someone’s who just love to chit-chat. All IM’s have a way to block and turn-certain people off. You have the option to keep them from interrupting your day and then, if you have the need to talk to them, turn their access back on.


Being able to carry out multiple task has it’s advantages; however consider that we might have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way. It might be time to bring it back a little more to the center and maintain some control as well as balance in our workday.


Over the next 5 days:

  • Do not attend meetings with your laptop or BlackBerry; leave them at your desk
  • Pick three time periods during the day to check your email
  • Screen your list of IM Friends and determine who you might need to block
  • Have a talk with your family and ask them to help you become more productive by limiting calls to those that are truly urgent

How do you find balance in multitasking?

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