Multitasking has become a way of life in workplaces, but doing too many things at once might be inefficient

Juggling on job is just addictive


We all do it.

Some of us do it better than others. Some of us have tried to quit but found that we go back to it.

Multitasking, or juggling many tasks at once, is now a way of life.

Not many of us can get through the workday without it. Responding to e-mail while talking on the phone and eating lunch; participating in a conference call while driving; or completing reports, sending out messages and taking calls while sitting in a meeting are common scenes in today's workplace.

But as technology increasingly tempts people to do more multitasking, research points out that at the end of the day it may take longer to switch between tasks. And some experts believe the quality of work can suffer.

"Our technology is controlling us, we're not controlling it," said Laura Stack, a Colorado-based workplace expert and author of the book Leave The Office Earlier. "Employers think responding at that pace is somehow productive and they don't know better to discourage it."

While studies demonstrate efficiency and productivity levels can be affected negatively at the hands of multitasking employees, convincing workers of that is challenging, Stack said. With many workers being asked to do more in their jobs, multitasking seems to be one way they're hoping to cope with those added duties.

But a 2001 study published by the American Psychological Association found that for all types of tasks, time is lost when switching from one task to another and lost time increased with the complexity of each task.

"Thus, multitasking may seem more efficient on the surface, but may actually take more time in the end," according to the study.

Stack said she often tells people to bring a kitchen timer in to work, set it for an hour and challenges them not to check e-mail during that time.

"They can't do it," Stack said.

To stay focused, Stack said she advises workers to turn off all electronic alerts and instead schedule specific times each day to check e-mail and phone messages.

Also, workers should avoid the urge or thought that might pop into their head to do something else.

Instead, write it down on a master list - not scrap paper or Post-It notes - and go back to what they were doing.

"We don't move things through to completion," Stack said. "We have all these half-done projects all over people's desks and it's very stressful. It's a component of multitasking. You have to get used to doing things from start to finish."

Some surveys show that uncompleted tasks and answering nonessential e-mail has a price.

A survey of 10,044 people by America Online and in May and June 2005 calculated $759 billion in salary paid for work that was expected but not performed.

In addition, survey respondents noted personal Internet use as the top time-waster.

A separate survey by Websense Inc. completed last March estimated that "Internet misuse in the workplace costs American corporations more than $178 billion annually in lost productivity." The study surveyed 500 people across the country who had Internet access at work and were employed by a company with at least 100 people.

For Robin Welbourn, human resources manager at the Baltimore office of the law firm Venable LLP, staying in control of multitasking comes in the form of an old-fashioned tickler file.

The file includes 31 slots, one for each day of the month. She then organizes her "must-dos" by date.

Instead of being laughed at for the old-fashioned method, she said co-workers have instead asked her how she manages to stay on top of her work, and a few have started their own files.

She said it can be difficult to manage time when phone calls, e-mail, regular mail and co-workers are all coming at you at the same time.

"If you continue to maintain control, then you can manage it," Welbourn said. "As soon as you start letting all those other things come at you and you try to respond, versus thinking about what you have to do, then it can get out of control."

A 2005 study by the Families and Work Institute in New York found that one in three American employees are overworked. The culprit: multitasking.

"We found one of the strongest predictors of being chronically overworked is multitasking too much and being interrupted all the time," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the organization.

The best way to keep from feeling overworked is to have outside interests.

"We need time for rest and recovery," Galinsky said. "The notion we have in our society that you're running a marathon all day long doesn't quite work. Have something built in that refreshes you."

Tom Kelly, evaluation manager at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, says he regularly finds himself multitasking but he also maintains several "to-do" lists that keep him focused and organized. While he embraces multitasking, Kelly acknowledged a certain amount of it is a requirement in order to get his home and work schedules aligned.

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