In computer terms, multitasking is the concurrent operation by one central processing unit of two or more processes. Interestingly enough, this is not accomplished because computers can perform multiple processes at once. They simply give the appearance of multitasking because they can switch between processes thousands of times a second.
Multitasking applied to human beings isn't much different. We have a central processing unit – the brain – and give the illusion of multitasking by switching between tasks performed in the same time frame, but not at the same time. I’m not proposing that people cannot multitask. We can, but only when the tasks performed are simple and familiar. The reality is that usually at least one of the tasks being performed is complex or unfamiliar. In these situations, we are not multitasking, we are switch-tasking.
Try this exercise as an example: Get a blank sheet of paper and put it beside this article. As you continue reading, write your name in cursive on the blank sheet. You were probably successful at multitasking and signed your name although it probably doesn't look as good as usual. In this case, both tasks, reading and signing your name, were simple and familiar tasks that you perform frequently.
Now, without looking at what you are writing, continue reading and write “I am an effective multitasker” in cursive. How does that look? In this case, reading remained a simple and familiar task while writing the phrase was simple and unfamiliar.
As I’ve been writing this article, I’ve answered the phone, my boss has walked in, a co-worker has stopped by and I've answered emails. I was doing five things at once, and I did them all well. They each got the attention they deserve. Or did they? Did I effectively multitask or was I distracted? Is there really such a thing as multitasking and, if not, how does the fallacy of multitasking relate to safety?
Understanding the Difference
Understanding the difference between switch-tasking and multitasking is important to working safely. The belief that we have to multitask is a good example of prioritizing productivity over safety. Consider these examples.
As it is phrased in almost every safety manual in existence, either texting and driving or texting while driving is not permitted. The problem is that there is no such thing as texting and driving or texting while driving. There is texting instead of driving. You stop driving and start texting, which is not multitasking – it's switch-tasking. The problem is that when you stop driving your vehicle, it keeps going.
An equally relevant example of the fallacy of multitasking for workers in the electric utility industry focuses on qualified observers. Using a qualified observer is a best practice utilized by partners in the OSHA Electrical Transmission and Distribution Partnership during critical tasks. The qualified observer is an employee designated to observe lineworkers performing critical work procedures. He shall perform no other tasks while observing. Enter the fallacy of multitasking. He answers the phone and then helps the crew unload the next pole to be set because he believes this makes the crew more productive. Just as they finish unloading the pole, the lineman cross-phases a mechanical jumper and causes an outage. Among the causes of this outage is the fallacy of thinking by the qualified observer who believed he was making the crew more productive by multitasking when in reality, he was switch-tasking. He stopped observing as soon as he answered the phone and helped unload the pole.
The leadership doom loop is one of my favorite examples of multitasking. A leader is multitasking and doesn’t explain his expectations when assigning a project to a subordinate. The subordinate does good work, but the finished product isn’t what the leader expected. When the work product is turned in, the leader – who is multitasking again – reviews it, quickly marks it up and chastises the employee for not doing what was expected the first time. The subordinate revises it and submits it again. This time the leader yells at the subordinate for not doing what was expected. The leader is too busy multitasking to explain the assignment yet again, so he decides to do it himself, adding yet another task to his to-do list and becoming even busier. The next project comes along and while assigning it to a subordinate, he is still multitasking.
However you feel about multitasking, hopefully you realize most of the tasks you are required to perform as part of your job deserve your full attention. Also, I’m sure your company expects you to work safely and productively. Here are some thoughts on effectively switch-tasking rather than ineffectively multitasking.
Your company is not going to shut down nor will the world stop spinning if it takes you an hour to answer an email. Don’t text instead of driving. If it’s too much temptation, turn your phone off and pull over at regular intervals to check and respond to emails. You’ll be a much safer driver and your body will appreciate the breaks.
Do one thing and do it right. There are simple and frequent tasks suitable for multitasking, but most demand effective switch-tasking. If someone interrupts your work, stop looking at your phone or computer and look them in the eye. If you’re designated as an observer, observe. Be clear in your instructions and training. The results you get from your subordinates will amaze you and make your job easier.
In conclusion, don’t let the demands of today’s fast-paced world affect your ability to stay safe. Understand and utilize switch-tasking as a tool to perform tasks correctly and safely the first time around.
About the Author: David McPeak, CHST, CSP, CSSM, CUSP, is the director of career development for Pike Enterprises. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in information systems and operations management, he holds multiple safety and training certifications from the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, the Utility Safety & Ops Leadership Network and the National Center for Construction Education and Research, and has received numerous awards including the National Safety Council’s Rising Star of Safety award. McPeak currently represents Pike Enterprises as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA Electrical Transmission and Distribution Partnership, and is a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council.