Multi-Tasking Myth or Reality?

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I recently presented a Program Director candidate to a hospital for review and consideration to fill an open position. The resume was well received and the hospital thought the candidate might be a good fit for their facility. The hospital then asked me how I could prove the candidate had superior multi-tasking skills.

Fortunately the question was in an email, which gave me time to think about the answer. While I have been asked numerous times to provide insight on a candidate’s multi-tasking ability, I had never been asked to prove it. I responded to the hospital that to me, proof was the candidate’s previous history of successfully leading organizational change and consistently delivering multiple on time projects. The hospital accepted the answer, but I was left questioning how multi-tasking had become a rule in/rule out component of an individual’s candidacy for a position.

I began to read about multi-tasking. The concept of multi-tasking was put forth by Datamation Magazine in 1966 to refer to a single CPU’s ability to process two or more jobs at once. In the 1990’s when computing technology made its way into mainstream society, multi–tasking began to refer to a human’s ability or action capability. From the 1990’s to present the term has gained increasing popularity, and is often used to describe an individual who can successfully handle many different projects, meet deadlines, and provide multiple deliverables on time.

In the past five years there has been a proliferation of research and articles about the myth of multi-tasking. To summarize popular thought – multi-tasking is a myth, and often detrimental to accomplishing work. Wikipedia states “an example of (human) multi-tasking is taking phone calls while typing an email and reading a book. Multi-tasking can result in time wasted due to human context shifting and apparently cause more errors due to insufficient attention”.

I have always thought I had pretty good multi-tasking skills, but now that belief is challenged. I can’t effectively read a book, answer an email, talk on the phone and devote full attention to all these activities simultaneously. I know that one task would compete with another and I would become distracted, and likely miss something important.

At the end of my reading on this topic, I concluded that for us to be successful we really need superior organizational skills, not multi-tasking skills. How often have we all heard a negative statement about someone who is isn’t performing up to potential? The statement “He or she can’t get anything done; they’re so disorganized” is heard frequently. Multi-tasking is in reality the sum of approaching all tasks in an organized manner to increase the likelihood of success.

At Horizon Health we have tools to support our desire to be organized. The action plan template is my personal favorite.For tasks large or small it forces the writer to sequentially organize a task into small increments , set goals, and it’s a great reporting tool on the progress of a project. It allows the reader to see very quickly if a project is on task or has derailed.

I have always had very positive feedback from hospitals when using an action plan, and updating it to keep them
knowledgeable about a project. I would also suggest that we all find ways to interview candidates for organizational skills, and not multi-tasking skills. We can’t change a hospital’s perception that multi-tasking is essential to success, but we can change how we view a candidate’s adequacy for a position.

Blog Contributor: Mary Bishop, Vice President of Operations for Horizon Health

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