How To Multitask At Work (With Examples)

By Matthew Zane
Aug. 7, 2022
Skills Based Articles

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No matter what you do for work, there are going to be times when multiple projects require your attention at the same time. Whether you do it consciously or without thinking, chances are that you’ve multitasked before in your life.

In today’s business world, the ability to multitask is a crucial skill, especially with more people working from home and coping with the distractions that come along with it.

In this article, we will cover the science of multitasking, problems with the practice, and tips for boosting your multitasking capabilities.

Key Takeaways:

  • When multitasking, its important to do similar tasks together to avoid making any mistakes.

  • You should keep distractions to a minimum when multitasking because it takes 100% of your focus.

  • It’s important to know your limits to multitasking and don’t push yourself to a burnout.

How to Multitask at Work (With Examples)

What Is Multitasking?

Multitasking is the act of working on multiple tasks simultaneously. That’s the commonly-held definition, anyway. In reality, the human brain is incapable of multitasking and instead, tends to rapidly shift between tasks.

A common interview question might ask you to describe your experience with multitasking.

When and how you multitask depends on what sort of work you do, but the chances are that you’ve multitasked, or regularly multitask at your job. You can probably think of several examples from your personal life where you multitask frequently.

When done well, multitasking can be a real asset in your professional life. However, it requires the ability to juggle and prioritize tasks while warding off distractions and low-priority issues.

10 Tips to Boost Your Multitasking Ability

Not every situation calls for multitasking. For example, you shouldn’t be responding to emails while you’re meeting a new client for the first time.

Still, many employees already deal with juggling multiple tasks every day. We’re here to show you how to optimize your multitasking capabilities to maximize results:

  1. Prioritize and plan. The first step to any successful multitasking session is having a solid plan in place. Write out what you have to do, then rank each task based on importance and urgency. Prioritize the high-importance, high-urgency tasks.

    Multitasking is not something you can start doing blindly. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail, or as the saying goes. Try to arrange your schedule so you can perform similar tasks in tandem (more on that below).

    Once you start multitasking, you’re going to be juggling multiple tasks at once. So, get your decision-making done first, then you won’t have to add that to your list of tasks. Otherwise, you’ll likely lose more time than you save.

  2. Keep your to-do list prominent. Don’t just make a to-do list and then forget about it or bury it somewhere in your many open tabs. Write it out and keep it somewhere prominent where you don’t have to go out of your way to look at it.

    Use a color-coding system, bold print, or numbers (however your brain best processes information) to delineate between the most and least vital tasks of your day. Don’t add “finding your to-do list” to your many possible distractions.

  3. Stay organized. This is related to the above tips, but incorporating organization into all facets of your work will create the foundation on which multitasking can succeed.

    Multitasking requires your undivided attention and spending even a few extra seconds locating a file or finding a pen multiple times a day can really add up.

    Make your life easier by taking the time to arrange your workspace with everything you might need during your multitasking session. This includes setting up your computer by opening any programs or files you’ll need.

  4. Work on similar tasks together. The big issues with multitasking that we summed up above often stem from the fact that the brain cannot process wildly different pieces of information or tasks simultaneously.

    Since your brain is rapidly shifting between tasks, minimize the cognitive load that it takes by bundling related or similar tasks together. Your short-term memory has its limits, so be a friend to yourself and plan your multitasking sessions to accommodate that fact.

    For example, input data as you write a report on that data, or research benefits options while drafting a budget. Your brain won’t have to work as hard if the tasks are related, so you’re more apt to actually save time multitasking this way.

  5. Iterate and measure results. We’re giving general advice here, but there’s no better way to test your multitasking capabilities than with an empirical test. Try bundling some tasks together into multitasking sessions, and record how long it takes to get everything done.

    Then, try performing those tasks one at a time. Compare the total time it took in both instances to see if multitasking saved you any time. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t at first – like any skill, multitasking takes practice to perfect.

    Tasks that don’t require much thought are a good option when practicing. After all, the reason we have no problem walking and talking at the same time is that they’re both automatic and require very little cognitive bandwidth.

  6. Cut distractions. Multitasking sessions require 100% of your focus. You can’t have colleagues coming to ask you unexpected questions or personal texts blowing up your phone. Have a set “do not disturb” time that your colleagues (or family/roommates, if you’re working from home) are aware of.

    Be aware of what’s distracting and what isn’t for you. Some people enjoy a bit of office chatter in the background or blaring tunes; whatever floats your boat.

    But social media, your phone, and random interruptions from coworkers are distractions for just about everyone.

    Stay vigilant near the end of your time multitasking – that’s when distractions start to look extra enticing.

  7. Leave time for review. Multitasking is great for getting into your work’s nitty-gritty and getting stuff done. It’s not great from an executive, big-picture level though, as multitaskers tend to get caught up in the trees and miss the forest more than most.

    What’s worse, we tend to forget more when we multitask; getting information into your memory banks is a task in itself, and one your brain doesn’t have time for when you’re juggling multiple other things already.

    Take some time every day to review what you’ve gone over and remind yourself of long-term goals and priorities. That way, you can be sure your multitasking didn’t produce any errors.

    In the long run, this review time will also make you a better multitasker, because your plans and prioritizations will continue to improve when you take the time to check in each day.

  8. Take breaks. There’s a reason we have to sleep every night – your mind and body need downtime to recharge and get back to 100%. It’s best to have a loose schedule for your breaks.

    The Pomodoro technique is one popular work/break option and stipulates that a 15-minute break every hour (more or less) is good for overall productivity.

    Find a system of breaks that works for you and stick to it. To make your breaks as regenerative as possible, get away from screens entirely.

  9. Know your limits. Those who multitask regularly are at higher risk of burnout. Recognize and accept your limits. Don’t try to multitask 40 hours a week (or anywhere even close to that), or you’ll likely end up mentally fried in no time.

    Some personality types just aren’t built for multitasking and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you get your work done best when you can focus on one thing at a time, lean into that method, and ensure you find a job/work environment that best suits your style.

    Even if you’re a professional multitasker, limit the amount of time you spend multitasking each day. Otherwise, the quality of your work is sure to suffer eventually.

  10. Share the load. Luckily, companies are composed of more than one individual. When you’re planning and prioritizing your day, think about how your team can help complete their given tasks most efficiently. Leverage other people’s strengths and cover for others’ weaknesses.

    This might apply more to those who work in a supervisory capacity, but depending on how democratic your team is, think of ways to share the load in a way that makes sense.

    For example, perhaps it is more efficient for you to multitask a set of related tasks as a team member multitasks a different set of related tasks, rather than each of you performing unrelated tasks successively.

Examples of Multitasking at Work

Consider the following everyday situations in which you multitask:

  • Signing for a package while greeting a customer

  • Responding to emails while talking on the phone

  • Writing a report while inputting data from the report

  • Troubleshooting and writing code simultaneously

  • Analyzing customer feedback while reaching out to a customer

  • Serving drinks and calculating a tab at the same time

  • Preparing several food orders at once

  • Updating your team on Slack as you work on a project

  • Researching health plans while drafting a budget

  • Taking notes while listening to a presentation

  • Teaching students while handing out assignments

  • Checking out customers while bagging their items

  • Responding to emails while listening to a podcast or music

Common Issues With Multitasking

So, multitasking is a magic bullet that lets you get more done in the same amount of time, right? Well, science on the topic suggests otherwise. Let’s examine some significant issues with multitasking:

  • The brain can’t do it. As we alluded to earlier, the brain isn’t actually capable of multitasking the way a computer is. Instead, we’re rapidly shifting between tasks in imperceptible amounts of time, leading us to believe that the two (or more) tasks are happening simultaneously.

  • More mistakes. Attempting to multitask can result in more errors – that’s why texting and driving is a big no-no. Studies have shown that an entrepreneur’s productivity also falls significantly when handling more complex tasks simultaneously.

  • Lost time. Ironically, multitasking can also result in lost time, as the short time spent switching your attention back-and-forth adds up.

    For example, if task A normally takes 10 minutes and task B normally takes 20 minutes, attempting to do both simultaneously might take 40 minutes (compared to 30 minutes if you just did them successively instead).

  • Risk of burnout. Burnout is a workplace phenomenon that’s more likely to manifest if you take on too much at once. Since multitasking is all about completing as much as you can at the same time, it’s easy to see that the risk of burnout goes way up when you multitask regularly.

  • Nothing gets your full attention. When you’re rapidly cycling between multiple tasks, there’s no way to give each task the attention it’s due. This can lead to the errors discussed above.

    However, it has a more long-term adverse effect too, as your most important work gets skimmed just as much as your less urgent assignments.

  • Lack of priorities. This isn’t always the case (more on that in our tips for effective multitasking below), but it’s harder to appropriately prioritize your workload when you multitask.

So is multitasking a myth? Kind of – it’s more of time-sharing and rapidly-shifting attention.

Should you forget about the practice entirely? We don’t think so. There are plenty of ways to get multiple things done at once without hurting your results.

Final Thoughts

Even if true “human multitasking” isn’t really attainable, the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities at once is an attractive quality in a job candidate and employee.

Be wary of the downsides of multitasking as you keep our tips in mind, and we’re sure you’ll be juggling more balls than a circus performer in no time.

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Matthew Zane

Matthew Zane is the lead editor of Zippia's How To Get A Job Guides. He is a teacher, writer, and world-traveler that wants to help people at every stage of the career life cycle. He completed his masters in American Literature from Trinity College Dublin and BA in English from the University of Connecticut.

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Topics: Hard Skills, Skills