Multi-tasking a myth or reality
ANY organisation worth its name looks to optimise productivity, decrease costs and deliver the best. An employee who can make significant contribution in all these areas handling multiple complex tasks is obviously a prized possession of an organisation.
But, then is he? Psychologists have studied and deduced that multi-tasking is something that is best left to be handled by technology and not humans. Humans are not adept at acting like multi-limbed octopus or other many- headed creatures.
When we talk of attention as a perceptual process, the field of attention tends to get divided into two - `focus' and `margin'. Human beings can process the information being presented to them in either one of two ways - serial processing or parallel processing. Under serial processing, the attention shifts in terms of focus.
If a particular conversation is in focus, only after it is dealt with completely can another unrelated topic be taken up. On the other hand, under parallel processing, the attention constantly fluctuates between various foci.
Serial processing is an efficient way of information processing when completely unrelated issues sorted by importance are being discussed, while parallel processing is good when similar topics are being discussed.
Multi-tasking, however, is concerned with parallel processing of many unrelated tasks. It conflicts with the natural attention mechanism in humans.
However, for those organisations where the attrition rates are high and thus multi-tasking is valued to evade a crisis situation and also for those employees who are naturally gifted at it, there are ways of optimising the talent by keeping a few things in mind.
Recognise the talent and address to its needs - It is not very difficult for a seasoned supervisor to note that a particular employee performs certain complex task switches very naturally. Here, it could disrupt the employee performance if he is hindered from performing those tasks. Thus, instead of adding on the pile or pruning it, talk to the employee to get a clear picture of what role he visualises for himself and what the organisation expects of him, in terms of tasks to be performed. Then help him in achieving those goals.
Clear reward system - A dissonance situation could set in if the employee is unable to find any reason for taking up all the stress and confusion caused by multi-tasking. It could affect the productivity as well as the employee health. So, a specific reward system should be evolved for those employees who are multi-tasking for the organisation.
Estimate time required by a task - This will help you in deciding the number of activities and the nature of activities that you can take on. Make sure that when performing a task you stick to the time limit that you assigned for it.
Prioritise tasks - Make a priority list. The list could be in line with the importance of the tasks. If constant switching between tasks is required then it should also be listed out clearly thus de-junking the less important but related tasks.
Get external memory aids - Move from a paper and pen to an organiser, planner or a digital pad. There's an impressive range of products meeting the requirements of a multi-tasking employee. Develop that support system.
Persevere - It's easier to complete multiple assignments this way. The very existence of multiple tasks can sometimes induce inertia. Your focus on other pending tasks that are lurking in your mind can botch up the task on hand.
Do not deny yourself leisure time - Both the employee and the organisation should understand the importance of leisure time spent with one's family or indulging in one's hobbies. This can help you become better at multi-tasking.
Understand the `switch costs' - The switch costs in terms of shoddy work, mistakes or faux pas increase with the complexity of the tasks on which the employee is multi-tasking. One must take into account the multitasking limitations of people. If an organisation's expectations from the employee or an employee's expectations from himself are unrealistic, performance is bound to worsen along with the deterioration in self worth of employees.
A fairly recent approach to cost cutting, research on multi-tasking has indicated that it increases stress, diminishes perceived control, causes physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches and leads to behavioural symptoms like memory loss and insomnia.
Yet, it is a reality in today's industry as it is indispensable to an extent. However, it would do both the organisations and the employees some good to create conditions to maximise benefits from it.
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