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When it comes to multitasking, there are two narratives in diametric opposition.
The first says that everyone does it nowadays. (And gen Z almost non-stop.)
After all—Who hasn’t talked on the phone and cooked dinner at the same time?
The second story you sometimes hear about multitasking is that it’s impossible.
Are employers looking for a skill that doesn’t exist?
Read on to learn what multitasking is, see examples and synonyms, learn if it’s possible to improve at multitasking, and how to highlight this skill on a resume.
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What is Multitasking?
Multitasking is when you perform two or more tasks simultaneously. In the workplace, this means switching between tasks quickly or focusing on one main task while keeping other responsibilities in mind. Some careers demand multitasking more than others, and for some jobs—it’s a requirement.
Examples of Multitasking
Here’s a list of good examples of multitasking skills in both personal and professional situations:
- Taking notes during a business meeting
- Waiting on multiple tables to deliver food, accept payment, and clean tables
- Talking to someone while driving
- Keeping track of multiple dishes being cooked at the same time
- Caring for multiple patients in a nursing home or medical facility
- Working as a bartender in a busy location
- Juggling more than one call as a customer service representative
- Directing numerous planes as an air traffic controller
- Watching a classroom while grading papers
- Managing multiple projects simultaneously
- Watching television while eating a meal
- Treating a room full of patients in an emergency room
- Driving a truck while receiving updates from dispatch
- Chatting with a customer while ringing up their purchases
- Writing on a blackboard while teaching a class
All clear? Great. Now let’s throw a wrench into the works.
According to research, true multitasking isn’t possible—the human brain cannot multitask effectively except under certain conditions. What we call multitasking is often the brain switching between two tasks quickly.
Research shows that the mind has a finite amount of resources and when presented with two demanding tasks, the brain must decide which task to perform (goal shifting), and then turn on the “rules” for a task (rule activation). Both of these processes take up a brief amount of time (less than a second) that overtime adds up.
The exception to this rule is when the tasks are well-practiced and the two tasks don’t conflict with each other in the brain.
So research suggests you’re better off giving one task at a time your undivided attention, but some jobs don’t make that easy.
Where Multitasking Matters
Put yourself in the shoes of an air traffic controller. Constantly changing plane schedules meets tight runways and zero margin for error. You have to make countless real-time decisions that affect one another. However, you define the multitasking skill, you need it.
Let’s look at the top ten jobs that require multitasking according:
- Air traffic controllers
- Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers
- Fire fighting and prevention supervisors
- Ship and boat captains
- Ship pilots
- Taxi drivers and chauffeurs
- Locomotive engineers
- Motorboat operators
- Bus drivers
- Forest firefighters
When it comes to more common job categories, research from the University of North Texas found “Business, Management and Administration,” “Finance,” and “Human Services” to be the career clusters that require the most demanding multitasking skills.
How to Improve at Multitasking
Is multitasking bad? Well, yes and no.
If your goal is productivity, try to avoid multitasking as it’s been shown to reduce productivity by up to 40%. Clearly, the time it takes your brain to switch between tasks adds up over time. But as we just found out, multitasking isn’t always a choice. A pilot can’t focus on each sensor one at a time. For some tasks, multitasking is unavoidable.
But what if multitasking isn’t in your wheelhouse? Is it possible to get better at multitasking?
Yes, research that shows the brain improves at multitasking with training. One study found that participants given two simple tasks—selecting the appropriate input to different images and selecting the appropriate vocal response to the presentation of different sounds—became efficient at multitasking after repeated practice.
Even though that example involves very simple tasks, it shows that multitasking is a skill that can improve over time. If you perform a task repeatedly, your brain kind of goes into auto-pilot mode, giving you the processing power to perform another task.
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Multitasking on a Resume
Multitasking is a skill you can put on your resume to show employers you have experience dealing switching between multiple tasks and responsibilities.
It’s unique in that you can think of multitasking as a mix of a soft skill and a hard skill, because experience is often needed to be able to multitask on a job. Someone who can cook five dishes at once would struggle to transfer their multitasking skill over to an administrative assistant position that requires handling phone calls, scheduling appointments, and emailing clients all at once.
That’s why you should avoid simply listing “multitasking” in a resume skills section, and instead write bullet points in your work experience section that describe how your experience allowed you to be extraordinarily productive on the job.
Read more: How to Describe Yourself on a Resume
Multitasking Interview Questions Worth Preparing For
When juggling multiple tasks at the same time is a job requirement, you can almost guarantee multitasking interview questions to arise. Here are some example questions and answers to help you demonstrate your multitasking skills when it counts.
1. Can you explain a time when you had to multitask?
A basic, but also popular question regarding multitasking. This is a great time to talk about your past experience, which is what employers are most interested in. The STAR technique for interview questions is excellent for answering these kinds of situational questions.
Example: In my last job as a project manager, I was tasked with overseeing multiple projects with strict deadlines. I found keeping all my notes and tasks highly organized in our task management system fundamental to not getting overwhelmed.
2. How do you handle having to multitask at work?
This question is trying to uncover your approach to multitasking. Even if you don’t have relevant experience in multitasking, you can talk about how you would manage a demanding situation hypothetically.
Example: As much as possible, I try to prioritize my tasks so that my entire attention span is focused on the most important deliverable at hand. But when that’s not possible, I have found that with experience I have gotten better and better at multitasking. For example, when I was covering the reception at XYZ Corp., scanning employees into the building while juggling phone calls became a breeze after working there for three months.
3. What is your secret to multitasking successfully?
This question might pop up if you put “multitasking” as a skill on your resume, so be prepared to back up your claim with proof! This can also be a great example of a strength for an interview.
Example: As a short-order cook at ABC Dining Co, I got better and better at multitasking with the more experience I gained. I realized just how demanding of a job it was when I saw that some of our new hires couldn’t keep up with the pace. I think I was able to succeed at multitasking in this environment, because I was able to stay calm even when things got busy.
4. Are you able to multitask on several assignments at the same time?
Here’s a job interview tip for you. Never just answer “Yes” to a question! The interviewer is really looking for you to back up your “yes” with proof.
Example: I got great experience multitasking when I had to work on several assignments at the same time as a marketing intern at my last company. I found great communication to be really helpful in managing expectations for my boss when I was juggling multiple tasks at once.
5. How do you determine your priorities?
Sometimes, multitasking can be avoided with good prioritization of responsibilities. Also, remember that you won’t walk into your new job knowing exactly what to do, and no employer expects you to figure everything out on your own. So often communication is the key answer here.
Example: At my last company, we had daily stand-up meetings. I found them to be a great way for me to set my own priorities, but still keep in contact with the team to see if my priorities were on track with the team's goals at all times.
What are Some of The Most Common Synonyms for Multitasking?
Here is a list of words similar to multitask:
- Switch tasks (quickly)
- Attentive (to details)
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Thanks for multitasking your way through this article. Do you have any questions around multitasking? Do you prefer to multitask or accomplish your to-do list one line at a time?
Let’s discuss in the comments section!