What if we trained people at work to do multiple things at once?

Train people to multi-task

The whole idea of multi-tasking is basically a myth, even though I’ve worked in dozens of offices where people consistently refer to themselves as doing it all the time. It’s a myth in part because there’s no such real thing as “multi-tasking;” what the concept actually means is that you’re switching your brain back and forth between two different ideas, tasks, concepts, whatever you want to call them. That’s taxing for your brain, and you’re probably not doing either task that well. This is, in essence, the entire problem with e-mail. You stop what you’re doing and look at it, and you’re off on another tangent (answering that e-mail), and then whatever you stopped doing, well, you need to resume that. Even if you’re the smartest person in the world — which you’re not — that’s hard for your brain. We’re not wired that way.

In essence, multi-tasking is a myth and a stupid concept and one you should avoid. It’s better to organize around themes, or batched tasks. But there’s some new research from Brown University now that throws an interesting wrinkle into the whole concept. 

The research is from this paper, which is in turn summarized by Harvard Business Review here.

In essence, the researchers set up two conditions: in one, participants moved a stylus around a screen based on visual prompts. In another, the participants did that, but at the same time they had to keep track of letters appearing on the screen. Basically, Group II was multi-tasking.

Later, the participants did the same exercises, but some of the single-task group did the multi-task exercise, and some of the multi-taskers did the single-task. (People got flipped.)

Here’s the interesting part: the multi-taskers did better when multi-tasking (if that was their first activity) then when single-tasking.

A lot of this comes back to context and how you get introduced to a new concept or topic; it’s akin to how it’s easier for young children to learn a new language than a 40-something, for example.

But now think about work applications, and of course, take all this with a grain of salt. These are lab exercises. They don’t always work in the real world and/or in offices (provided you consider “an office” to be akin to “the real world;” not everyone does).

So think about this, right?

1. We know the idea of training employees is important — in some respects, it’s the thing that moves a company from “good” to “great.”

2. We know that people often feel busy and somewhat overwhelmed with their jobs.

3. A lot of this comes from the fact that most managers aren’t very good at their jobs, but a lot of it also comes from the fact that people get trained on one thing, usually at one time, and then the context of their job changes — they have to deal with new things (your job is never what you think it is) and they often have to deal with those new things at the same time.

4. Sooooooooooooo …..

5. What if we changed training and instead of training new employees on 1 of their presumed tasks at once, we trained them on 2-3 tasks at the same time?

6. In this way, we’d be contextualizing the idea of multi-tasking for them — basically telling them, “Often you will have to do 2-3 things at once, so you should get used to it from the start.”

7. If we combined this approach with one simple change to the on-boarding process, things could start to be a bit different (maybe).

So rather than saying “One of your jobs is accounting. Let’s walk you through that!” and “One of your jobs is finance. Let’s walk you through that now!” — instead you’d say “We’re going to look at accounting and finance right now, at the same time, and maybe even approximate a deadline environment.”

A lot for a first day/week for most people? Unquestionably. But could it make for better, more driven, more adaptable employees? Yes. Yes it could.

Ted Bauer


  1. Excellent thoughts, Ted. In one of the most interesting books I have ever read “The Game of Work” by Charles Coonradt (sp?) he suggests that when we indicate to a new employee that another employee xxx will show how we do things around here we are making a major mistake. He suggests that a new hire is a major investment and like hiring a new running back for for a professional football team we should in fact be quite specific about what is expected. For example: ” We are going to have you carry the ball 25-35 times each game and expect you to gain 4-6 yards every carry and break a much longer run several times each game.” Providing clear expectations of performance expectations is a critical factor whenever we want our investment in a new employee to pay off well.

    • Agree completely with this comment. Isolated trainings needs to the expectation that doing more than one thing at a time is “taxing,” which leads to the attitude that everyone is always “slammed” or “too busy,” which hurts engagement and productivity.

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