There is usually two distinct perspectives on multi-tasking:
1. Multitasking is counterproductive. We get distracted by multiple tasks that all get our way and fight for our scarce attention, time and resources. This leads to a common fallacy that if you do multiple activities “at a time” you are not doing good work in any of those.
2. Multitasking is a way of getting many things done in a short period of time or in a long run.
Indeed it can be either a disaster or a great helper depending on how it is used and practiced.
Most recent research shows that we don’t do multiple tasks purely in parallel or simultaneously. That means we don’t purely multi-task, but switch between tasks and execute them one at a time, but by spending very small timeframes on each task.
A good example from the history is a story about Julius Caesar capabilities in that area. Plutarch writes, “Caesar disciplined himself so far as to be able to dictate letters from on horseback, and to give directions to two who took notes at the same time, or as Oppius says, to more.” Plutarch’s Lives (New York, 1905), IV, p. 274. Pliny wrote, “We are told that [Caesar] used to write or read, and dictate or listen simultaneously, and to dictate to his secretaries four letters at once, on his important affairs—or, if otherwise unoccupied, seven letters at once.” Natural History (Cambridge, 1961), II, p. 565.
What we could see in this example is that to be purely multi-tasking, or how those sources say doing all those activities “at the same time” or “at once”, Caesar should have at least two heads (or more “if otherwise unoccupied”) so each head would dictate to each secretary at once.
So it is clear that we can multitask, but require prioritization of tasks and then time to execute each one of those which get to the priority “folder”.
In my opinion the main problem with distraction and perception that multitasking is not productive is that in majority of cases all those tasks and monitoring of progress on each of them is happening within a very short period of time. In addition to just pure switching between tasks many times during say an hour or two there is also a problem of intervention by social and mass media. This is nothing to do with performing work, but gets a great deal of time out of productivity if not used in moderation.
I suppose many of us could recall situations when the important tasks (a set of them at a time) required completion “yesterday” and for every task several people have asked “what’s the status?”
It’s dragging, isn’t it?
Scientists confirm that if we do some task for some time and then got stuck or feel upset about doing it and don’t seem to find a solution it’s necessary to switch to some other activity which involves thinking. After some time we should switch back to the previous activity and so on until the solution is found. This approach works, but requires high concentration on the current task for some continuous time.
Those other activities should not be necessarily from your job or your current interests. New ideas, learning some new subject or resolution of problems from different domains help very much to achieve goals in your current occupation. It may not be obvious, but experimental proof shows that if you do one task from your current subject matter, then change to another task in the same domain, then do something that is from a different area, but somehow related to what you are currently working on – that would increase a chance to complete the other tasks in your current job successfully and with better quality.
Example: you are in Business Analysis area and between doing your tasks at work you have learned some Law topics and solved some challenges related to Legal practice. That will definitely help you to understand why business processes in different companies are set one way or another.
Quality of work and outcomes of what we do is one of the most important things. Only a few people could produce high quality result and work with high speed for a long time. Therefore for every task maximum attention to detail and focus should be exercised and other tasks should be prioritised before or after current specific task is complete. When you work in a team make sure your team mates (colleagues) understand those concepts. You could manage their expectations that you are only able to work on one task at a time, no matter how many other tasks need to be done right now or in the near future.
Allocate time slots during the week or even during the day when you concentrate only on task management, not task completion. Make sure the tasks for the foreseeable future are clear, documented and you understand what has to be done.
Everything requires practice and multitasking is not an exception. Try practicing it daily, but taking to account the quality outcome. Transition from quantity to quality is the goal.