What to do when ‘multitasking’ is unavoidable – Pick Dave’s Brain

This week’s question comes from Jen in Rosemount, Minnesota. She asks:

Q: I work in emergency dispatch. People who perform well in this position have the ability to both type and listen to the conversation at the same time. If multitasking is something that people are unable to do, then what are these effective 911 dispatchers doing and what can we do to find the best candidates for the position?

Thank you.

Click to tweet this: Switchtasking wastes time and creates stress. Leave it to the pros who put their sanity on the line. @DaveCrenshaw

If multitasking doesn’t exist, then what are all those 911 operators really doing?

This week’s question comes from Jen in Rosemount, Minnesota. She asks:

I work in emergency dispatch. People who perform well in this position have the ability to both type and listen to the conversation at the same time. If multitasking is something that people are unable to do, then what are these effective 911 dispatchers doing and what can we do to find the best candidates for the position?

Thank you.

Dave:

Great point, Jen! It is not the first time this issue has been brought up. There are many people who are in positions that require them to do multiple things at the same time.

First of all, let’s make the distinction between multitasking—which really doesn’t exist—and switchtasking, which does. Switchtasking is when you’re trying to perform multiple active tasks at the same time. Because your brain cannot handle them all at once, what you’re really doing is switching rapidly back and forth. What these 911 dispatchers are doing is switchtasking. Now does that mean that it’s bad?

Absolutely not! It just means that there is going to be a cost. Whenever you switch from one thing to something else, there is always a cost. There are three costs in fact—things take longer, you make more mistakes, and stress levels increase. I am sure you’ve seen that on the operator floor. So if they’re doing that, how can they still be effective?

Well, I have found that it is true that some people incur less switching cost than others. For instance, I have found that, in general, women tend to incur less switching cost than men. Now, they’re still going to incur the cost. Things are going to take longer, they’re going to make mistakes, and their stress levels are going to increase. However, you’ll want to find people who incur the minimum possible impact of those switches. So, what does this mean for your question about recruiting the best 911 dispatchers?

First, look for people who incur the least amount of switching cost. Everyone will have these problems. But, because some have less, you’ll want to develop some aptitude test in the hiring process to see which people can handle the most amount of stress and most amount of switches.

And second, when it comes to the training programs that you have available you want to teach people over and over, through repetition to get used to performing these multiple things at the same time.

Of course, the ideal is that we never switchtask. But it’s not practical. Occasionally, some of us have to do that. If it’s a recurring part of your job, you’re going to have to train yourself to incur the least amount of switching cost possible.

Fascinating question, Jen!

And if you’ve got a fascinating question for me, or even just a practical question for me, all you need to do is go to davecrenshaw.com/ask, and I’ll be there to answer your question.

I look forward to seeing what you have for me.


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