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Today I’m holding my breath; I’m going to talk about a controversial concept that sometimes gets me in trouble when I discuss it with other office admins.

A recent study conducted by office* of office administration assistants listed multitasking as the number one skill required to be successful administrative assistant.

I’ve been guilty of thinking this, too. I’ve had “ability to multitask” sitting proudly at the top of my skill list on my resume for almost 20 years. But in reality, you really shouldn’t multitask. When you’re multitasking, you’re less productive and killing brain cells in the process.

I know, it’s hard to digest. Let me explain.

What we call multitasking is, in effect, a massive failure of our brain’s ability to filter, process and prioritise incoming information, so we jump wildly from subject to subject like a cat chasing a laser pointer beam.
— Lauren Pope, Conversations by Nokia

Why you shouldn’t multitask

From a productivity standpoint, multitasking means you’re not giving any of your tasks your full attention. You’re being less efficient and at risk of making mistakes. The simple act of stopping work on one task and switching to another is wasting time, especially when you think of how many times you switch tasks; switching between replying to emails that just landed into you inbox and the PowerPoint presentation you’re helping to prepare for the next board meeting.

Think of the times you’re having difficulty keeping up with the phone conversation you’re having with a customer while you’re trying to send off a quick email. Are you really able to give both tasks the attention they deserve? Do you have to ask the customer to repeat themselves? Do you send off that email that doesn’t actually make any sense?

For over ten years the case against multitasking has been building. A study undertaken by the University of London has linked multitasking to reduced concentration and functioning worse than someone high on cannibus. A US psychiatrist named Dr Edward Hallowell calls multitasking “a mythical activity”. Kings Psychiatry College found that multitasking reduced a person’s IQ by ten points.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it? All those years I proudly touted myself as an excellent multitasker; turns out that it’s doing more harm than good — professionally and psychologically.

The case for singletasking

It sounds like a simple concept, but singletasking can actually be quite a difficult skill to devleop. Single tasking is just as it sounds: do one thing at a time. That’s it. Send that email before you go back to formatting that Word document. Don’t send chat messages to workmates while you’re in a meeting. Finish processing invoices before you work on the budget spread sheet. Don’t try to talk to the courier while you’re transferring a call. Singletasking is, in short, stopping yourself by being distracted by all the tasks you’re trying to get done. Focus on one, finish it and move on.

Considerable research has gone into understanding the impact of singletasking. Dr Sandra Bond Champman has spent years studying multitasking versus singletasking and has found that singletasking increases your creativity, energy and focus. Dr Jim Taylor says that singletasking requires prioritising, delegation, focus and discipline. Daniel Goleman recommends using a meditation technique called mindfulness to develop your ability to singletask.

Tell me what you think about singletasking

Do you think singletasking is a waste of time? Do you think it’s possible to multitask really well? I’d really love to hear your ideas on this one, it’s a challenging topic, especially from an admin perspective!

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