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Multi-Tasking: Friend or Foe?

Published December 14, 2013 12:20 PM by Mia Ross

I can remember one of the first pieces of advice I was ever given as a nurse:  A good nurse must be a fantastic multi-tasker.  At the time, it made sense.  Once I was thrown into clinical rotation, I felt constant, head-spinning pressures and demands.  At every junction, I was thrown in three directions.  And, as promised by my predecessors, I did grow quite adept at juggling multiple balls in the air simultaneously.  Initially, I felt proud.  I've done it!  I've become a grade-A multi-tasking nurse.  I can administer meds while thinking about the patient next door who needs his Foley removed while talking to the physician about discharge instructions all while advising my co-worker what to get me for lunch!  The good feelings wore off fast when I realized that although I was completing all my tasks on time, I wasn't doing any of them very well.  

It was here that my issue with multi-tasking started.  I hated the feeling that I was rushing and preoccupied all the time.   I hated that I couldn't give my total attention to the task at hand because my brain space was always filled with impending responsibilities.  I knew I needed to change the way my days were spent.  I read a wonderful book titled "Your Brain at Work" by David Rock.  It was here that I found pertinent advice on how to get through the work day most effectively without compromising quality.  My assumption was right:  Muliti-tasking does not translate with superior performance.  In fact, it harms productivity and quality of work.  

As nurses, we don't work with deadlines or projects or reports.  We work with human beings.  I suddenly felt a sense of regret for treating my work days like to-do lists.  I started triaging my tasks more efficiently.  I removed things from my short-term memory and instead wrote them down on paper which left space for the present moment.  I instantly became a better listener.  I became more assertive.  If a physician was interrupting my time with a patient or co-worker, I would politely say that I was preoccupied and that in order for me to give her/him my full attention, we'd have to talk later.  I learned how to say no.  When an aggressive family member demanded water for their brother/sister/mother/father, instead of running to grab it, I'd bring the person with me to the kitchen and say, "consider this your kitchen, too".

If you asked me today to glorify multitasking, I'd have to decline.  I hate multitasking at work.  I hate multitasking at home.  I like living in the present moment. I like being aware of the now.  I like being attentive.  And I'll never go back.  


in my position, working with multiple case managers, multiple agencies, problems running the gamet from minor to life changing, i too find it difficult to keep info organized- and i have been a nurse for many decades, so the problem is not limited to the new grad !  i will take this advice, try & fit it into my own situation, & hopefully do a better job.

Jackie Bruno, developmental disabilities - nurse coordinator January 8, 2014 3:34 PM

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