Are multitaskers better employees than single taskers?

The likelihood is only a few who are reading this have ever read Future Shock, a book written by the futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970. What is really captivating about his work is not only the accuracy, but also his predictions were made before the internet, cellphones and 10 years before the first PCs. Consider that 1970 was at the tail end of the ‘hippy’ era.

It seems funny now; mine was the generation of “Love and Peace” but it was also the harbinger of Information Overload. Funny, but true. Something like: “This will really ‘blow your mind’ before we literally ‘blow your mind’.”

In simple terms Mr. Toffler predicted:

  • Goods would be outdated quickly, becoming obsolete as soon as the initial production run was over.
  • New models would appear and items would become increasingly disposable.
  • Design (user experience) would be the currency of change. This would depreciate durability. This is exemplified with the iPhone’s iterations. The primary exceptions are transportation devices.
  • People will have to change professions because professions are quickly outdated, becoming professional nomads, moving among careers. Nothing has better defined the US economy since 2007 than the decline and disappearance of previously stable career paths.
  • As a result of change, personal relationships will tend to be superficial with a large number of people rather than of intimate or close relationships that are more stable. If this isn’t a precursor to Facebook it is hard to imagine one better.
  • The things and values people hold dear, will become increasingly temporary.
  • And finally his biggest prediction: information would change and expand so rapidly that our ability to absorb would be saturated. We would drown in Information Overload.

Although these were fundamental to the book, his other predictions included a restructuring or reinvention of society. Or at least what defines socially acceptable behavior, such as marriage for example.

To me, his predictions were on point.

Keeping in the scope of this blog, the question then becomes: “Who is most affected by information overload and how does it impact employability?” Or “Is managing vast amounts of information through multitasking truly beneficial?”

Sadly, the most common tactic to handle the tsunami of information in our lives is to either ignore it, or multitask.

I fall in the first category. I have a very high signal-to-noise filter. If it doesn’t have value to me – ignore it. If you don’t believe me just ask my wife. She has years of experience with my selective processing. She has heard me often say: “Why is this story on the front page of the newspaper? It’s not news!”

Ignoring information, or filtering, has advantages and disadvantages. In the workplace it can be a really big plus. First it means that when assigned a task, the supervisor expects the task will get done on time without interruption. That’s good. But one of the side effects of focus is that the focused person is often seen as anti-social. That’s bad because sociability is a cornerstone of the traditional office environment. But for remote workers or virtual and telecommuters then it is good.

Multitasking on the other hand is just plain bad. Not only is it bad for the multitasker even in the simplest form, say driving and texting, it degrades both tasks. It can even result in sending life’s ‘final’ incomplete text. Phoning and driving may not degrade the two tasks as much as texting but still, both are simple tasks and done improperly can have consequential outcomes.

But multitasking negatively effects the brain’s ability to function, (http://tinyurl.com/nbot3p ) permanently affecting the ability to concentrate and remember. Not only is this a serious medical health issue, but it is really bad when competing for a job.

Moving up the task complexity pyramid where input and output products are important to employment outcome, then things seriously and rapidly degrade. Following instructions, studying a report, writing a proposal and any number of work related tasks can not be done adequately without focus. Multitasking causes errors. That is bad. But the inability to remember or concentrate puts multitaskers at risk while seriously jeopardizing employability and consequentially affects lifetime economic potential. Can you think of something more degrading to employment opportunity than an employee who is at work physically 100% of the time and only there mentally part of the time with a poor work product.

Here we are again with more questions than answers, which is anathematic to the concept of ‘more information is better.’

Here are some of the starting questions:

Are there really easily adoptable strategies to help filter information?

Are there tools to learn how to multitask or even not multitask?

How can you keep information activity or feeds from distracting your focus?

What jobs suit multitaskers?

How much multitasking is OK? Is it sitting at watching TV; driving and listening to the radio; walking and chewing gum? Drinking and talking? What is the limit?

Is multitasking the cause for personal or social alienation? By that I mean does multitasking reduce the number of close personal friends. And if so, why?

Do people who single task have better, more meaningful personal relationships than those who multitask? Which group is happier?

But the real question is – are multitaskers better employees than single taskers?

What are your thoughts on this? If you have more questions to ask, or answers, please share them on www.employthis.com/forum/

Paul Swengler CEOAre multitaskers better employees than single taskers?