On life…and learning

The Dilemma of Focus Vs. Multitasking

with 7 comments

multitasking-vs-focus-mediumA young management professional reached out to me today with an oft-repeated dilemma – what to chose between Focusing on one thing and Multitask. A year out of the college now, she was taught at her management school that it is good to have the skill of ‘multitasking’. And now, the same is expected at her workplace too. Armed with this learning, she till now firmly believed in the concept of multitasking to excel at work and life alike. However, working for sometime now in the corporate world, she often finds herself caught in the predicament of focusing on one thing at a time vis-à-vis multitasking – that how working on many things simultaneously may also lead to distraction in focus from the most important thing at that time!

“Won’t it impact the quality of work, leave a piled-up list of unfinished tasks and finally diminish my productivity, which could have rather been augmented by focusing on doing one thing at a time?” she asked.

I am sure many of you would have faced the same dilemma, especially during starting years of your working life. And the question is quite valid too – this dilemma does exist. It would appear that in some cases, multitasking is undeniably an efficient way to utilize time, while on other occasions, the quality of the work may suffer as a result of split attention.

Few years ago, a teammate shared with me his success secret, with quite an apt description of FOCUS

Follow One Challenge Until Success is achieved

I could not agree more!

And yet, on the other hand, multitasking is a really crucial & necessary skill demanded out of the working professionals in the chaos of today’s fast-paced scenario.

Here is what I learnt in all these years – these two are the two wheels of a bike. Both are quintessential and one cannot ride a bike on only one wheel. Given the situation, there is a reasonable dependency on both approaches and a balance needs to be achieved by ‘prioritizing’ the work.

I would like to share an invaluable lesson I learnt from an old supervisor – multitasking becomes difficult as we also confuse, a lot, between Urgent and Important – we often assume both to be same. Don’t you receive a lot of emails, with subject as Urgent and/or Important? However, in reality, not all work that is important will be urgent. Similarly, all urgent work may not be necessarily important; sometimes otherwise non-important work too requires urgent attention and action.

If we do not prioritize carefully, we can fall into this trap of

multitasking = distraction in our focus.

Then, there is more to it. Quite often, I have observed that we tend to take too much work on our plate – blame the old-fashioned fear of not being able to say ‘No’. That also leads to poor quality in the outcome, delay in timeslines and increased performance-related anxiety and/or stress. In this case, eventually, both work and the worker suffer. Hence, I would say that when you do decide to multitask, make sure to check your work carefully so as to ensure that it is of high quality, and consider abandoning multitasking for certain tasks if you notice a decline in quality. Saying a timely ‘no’ to a task you cannot do justice to is also a right start.

Again, there is an element of one’s engagement at work. As I keep saying, the real mantra behind a successful professional delivering quality output consistently is the quantum of her engagement at work. If she is working on the things that make her feeling productive and successful at the end of the day, she will be positively driven and encouraged to give her best in the same time duration and hence, this dilemma of focus vs. multitask will really not bother her way too much.

A successful professional will have a strong sense of planning her time and energy; she will focus on the high priority things at the time, while not losing sight of other simultaneous deliverables.

This is what I think and that’s how I manage the balance between focusing on priority and multitasking. Now, it is your turn. Let me know what you think. Do you too get embroiled in this dilemma? Do share your experiences.


Photo-credit: rodneygoldston.com

7 Responses

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  1. I trust that the words like multitasking, prioritizing and focusing are used by seniors to make a point where something is missed by an employee. End of it all the work needs to get done efficiently no matter if the quantum exceeds human capacity which requires putting in extra time. Focus is the key, I trust the dilemma won’t ever be over for many as distractions at the workplace are inevitable and at the same time sticking to the task is imperative.


    August 17, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    • Hi Faseeh, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I would divide my response in two parts – one, where you have commented upon seniors using these words to an erring employee – I think this is where lies the key difference between a manager and a leader. Any authentic leader shall not hide behind the veil of using mere words to convey a message – the feedback shall come straight from them. Authenticity is a key here – I have written on this piece earlier – https://rrgwrites.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/are-you-an-authentic-leader/

      As far a multitasking v. focus is concerned, I do agree with your views. As I wrote, If we do not prioritize carefully, we can fall into this trap of multitasking = distraction in our focus.


      August 17, 2013 at 2:57 PM

  2. Hi, We do witness this everyday and you have put this mantra to manage once work very well leading to work-life balance later. Witnessing/ Hearing this word FOCUS around, then learning and following it has given me a great help . I TRULY agree with you. To everyone of us it is one BASIC rule to “How to work well”. Thanks.


    August 18, 2013 at 11:19 AM

  3. As I understand –
    Priortise the tasks in terms of importance, focus on one task at a time but ready to leave it in mid for an urgent work.

    Rajesh Pratap Singh

    October 8, 2013 at 7:26 PM

    • Interesting viewpoint, Rajesh; thanks for sharing.
      I agree to prioritization and focus; however, won’t advocate ‘leaving in mid’. In fact, if some other work is deemed as urgent, it is a subject of decision whether it would gain importance and become high priority. If yes, then it falls into the definition of priority and immediate focus.


      October 9, 2013 at 12:12 AM

  4. Indeed a great article and a great insight into such a common dilemma faced by a lot of people these days, be it management students or professionals. Some thoughts on similar lines:

    1. Multitasking is more efficient when the person has a better clarity of mind and of the tasks he/she is involved into. It leads to better time management, thus leading to efficient multitasking.

    2. While reading the section on urgent/important.. I was reminded of the URGENCY-IMPORTANCE matrix which is so simple and apt, yet many a times we tend to skip it while performing our tasks.

    Last thoughts would be from the little experience I have had till now.. Though it’s always good to challenge yourself and take more responsibilities, as mentioned in the article, one should know how to strike a balance and where to say a NO.

    We also tend to keep ourselves away from distractions/ unproductive activities when we get involved in many things, thus leading to increased bars of performance 🙂

    Manisha Jain

    August 7, 2018 at 8:18 PM

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