It was only fairly recently that I cracked the myth of multitasking, and found an attitude toward it that I am comfortable with.
These days, I see it this way. A housewife (if you'll forgive the 1950s stereotype that follows - but the idea of the multitasking superwoman is perfect for this purpose) needs to cook dinner, tidy up the lounge of toys and change a nappy. She leaves some sauce simmering on the stove, picks up a couple of soft toys and throws them in the toy chest, then takes care of the baby's nappy. She returns child to crib, washes her hands, picks up the books that were on the floor and slides them back into the bookshelf. She returns to the stove, adds some basil, reduces the heat and goes to answer the doorbell. This is the classic stereotype of multitasking. That skill, much maligned by the stereotype useless male - unable to sit upright and breath in and out at the same time - that results in incredible productivity.
But this is not really multitasking.
At no stage was the housewife engaged in two tasks at once, nor should she have been. True multitasking would have involved changing the nappy, while using the baby's legs to stir the sauce and kicking the toys and books one by one toward the place they were supposed to go. The result? Burned feet, nappies on the stove, books nowhere near the bookshelf and a lot of mess to clean up.
Thus stands the multitasking myth. Because what you're really talking about is not the ability to complete multiple tasks at once, but the ability to switch between tasks effectively, without hindering the effectiveness of your contribution to any of them. This is what you should focus on improving if you want to be a multitasker. How can you flip between jobs productively? Your working routine is bound to require it; nobody's working day ever allows them to focus on one thing only, but they are seldom required to actually do two things at once.
So multitasking remains one of the biggest myths in the modern workplace, whether that work place is an office, a construction site or a household.
That's not to say it doesn't exist, or that it can't be done. There are number of ways that you can multitask effectively, and putting some thought into structuring your day to allow for these real examples of multitasking is what will help to make you more efficient.
Here are a few things you can do that constitute real multitasking.
Schedule phone conversations when you're driving (hands free please.)
My car has some clever green tooth or blue eye thing that means I receive calls from a button on my steering wheel. But a $10 earpiece has much the same effect.If you have an hour long commute involving traffic (and if you're working on engineering jobs in Houston for example, I know you do) you can make it work for you. It doesn't have to be business; it can be anything that will save you time earlier or later in the day. Sit on hold with whichever bank is currently abusing your custom. Call Mom. If it's something you would have to find other time to do otherwise, it's saving you time. (Make sure you are complying with all legal responsibilities for safety reasons.)
Combine Audiobooks with basic physical tasks
Again, the car is good. But so is the bath, the kitchen while you're cooking dinner (one of my responsibilities at our place - who's 1950's now?) or the treadmill at the gym. You don't have to read, to get that book read. It was a big day for me when I realized that iPods weren't just for music. Audiobooks (that you pay for) or podcasts (that you don't) offer a vast range of opportunities to learn and develop during dead time, like when you're on the stationary bike, or boiling the water for the pasta.
Combine Conference Calls with almost anything
Be honest. A good number of conference calls require less than active participation. If I find myself on one of those calls, I look for the mute button and for something else to do. If I'm in my office at home, I'll do a wash load or clean the kitchen. The combination of mindless physical task and passive mental task is a good one. You should be careful not to try anything too engaging. It's difficult to build a PowerPoint presentation or write a detailed e-mail and stay on top of the subject matter of a conference call, even if you're not talking very often. You need to pay attention, but a physical task that requires no thought should allow that.
Multitasking can only be effectively achieved with the right balance of mindless physical tasks and stationary mental ones. As soon as anything blurs the lines on that distinction, you're in trouble. Beware overreaching. I suggest you take my word for the fact that stationary bikes and food preparation are not a good match. Weddings and audiobooks can also result in injuries of a different kind. Throughout this process, one must pay attention to what is potentially dangerous, or just plain inappropriate. It's easy to offend people if they should get the impression they don't have your full attention.
At the end of the day, which task you are neglecting, and which you are diligently carrying out is all a matter of perception. As my school chaplain once told me - "You can't smoke while you pray. But you can pray, while you smoke."
Multitasking suggestions and party fouls welcome in your comments...