The Real Cost of Multitasking
Busy at the Till
When I was seventeen years old, I worked at the Orange Julius stand at the Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie, Louisiana, the New Orleans suburb where I grew up. Back then (in 1979), since food courts didn't yet exist, the Orange Julius and the drugstore were the only two places where you could get something to eat or drink in a shopping center.
This was the first time I had worked a cash register, and I was already taking an interest in trying to find ways of doing things faster. In fact, I worked out a way of accepting money from one customer while taking the order of the next one, and this practice helped me to get through the long lunch lines quicker than my coworkers did.
Looking back and wondering whether my procedure at the Orange Julius cash register contradicts what I advise people in time-management training, I consider my doing two things at once from two different perspectives:
- Use of my intellectual resources
- Quality of my personal interactions with customers
Viewing my technique from the first standpoint: Neither accepting payment nor taking an order required much mental effort, once I had memorized the half-dozen items on the menu and their prices. After I got used to the different combinations of bills and coins that people might hand me, I could add up an amount in a single glance. Since I didn't need to concentrate on either of those two activities, I don't think that the quality of my work suffered as a result of doing both at once.
But when I look at it from the perspective of personal interactions, it's possible that some of my customers perceived my methods as impolite, since I wasn't giving any one person my full attention. On the other hand, the lunch crowd was mostly interested in getting their hot dogs and drinks, and then going off to eat on a bench or at one of our nearby stand-up tables. Most patrons probably didn't care whether they had my full attention.
Of course, I can't be unbiased in this case, but my verdict is that this was probably an appropriate situation in which to do more than one thing at a time.