The barrage of new workplace technologies has revolutionized how we work. Each day we face the fast-paced world of instant communication, tight timelines, and multiple information sources—all that appear to require our immediate attention. With work coming at us from all sides, the distractions are never ending.

While we all appreciate the importance of multitasking, we may not know exactly what multitasking is and how it affects productivity and critical business outcomes. These six tips reveal the latest research on multitasking and its impact on employee performance, satisfaction, and success:

1.  Understand what multitasking is . . . and isn’t 

Generally, we think of multitasking as doing two or more activities at the same time. Research on brain function, however, indicates that we are not truly capable of processing information and solving multiple problems simultaneously.  With the exception of rote, elementary tasks, our brains are wired to process one thing at a time. It may occur so fast that it seems simultaneous; nonetheless, it’s still only one at a time. No wonder we hear complaints about information overload, job stress, and employee burnout!  At its best, effective multitasking is being able to make quick decisions about the sequence and importance of tasks and then proceeding to complete those tasks efficiently

2.  Reduce distractions to combat stress and increase productivity

Multitasking causes us to constantly shift back and forth between tasks. Just like driving in stop-and-go traffic as compared to highway driving, starting and stopping takes more time, more energy—and leads to more stress. Interruptions and distractions impede effectiveness. Multitasking at its worst is the frequent occurrence of simultaneous interruptions and distractions. This type of multitasking has been reported to cause as much as a 40% reduction in productivity. Not surprisingly, it also increases the incidents of mistakes and errors. By limiting interruptions and keeping the work environment free of distractions, productivity increases, errors decrease, and employee stress levels are reduced.

3.  Discover the truth about generational differences

Is multitasking best left to the Millennials? Not at all. While we recognize that the Millennial generation may be more comfortable with digital technology and devices, that alone does not determine effectiveness. Since multitasking is a process of selective concentration and focus, learning how to “filter and focus” is the real key to success. The distinction is that, initially, Millennials may be more accustomed to multiple sources of information at a faster pace. However, the basic challenge we experience with multitasking is similar. Switching attention between tasks can be difficult for people of all ages.

4. Recognize multitasking benchmarks

In view of the complexity of multitasking, we were curious about the multitasking competency of today’s applicants. So, we randomly reviewed assessment results of more than 20,000 customer service applicants from our database. We found that multitasking was typically applicants’ lowest or second to the lowest competency score.  So, regardless of applicants’ self-reported ability, or the generation in which they grew up, chances are multitasking was one of their greatest challenges.

5. Realize the impact of multitasking on key success factors

 While it’s true that multitasking is challenging, our research also shows that some people are much better at switching between tasks than others. We recently conducted a study in which we focused exclusively on multitasking ability (including such factors as speed and accuracy, comprehension, and navigation effectiveness).  We found a wide variance in multitasking ability among participants. We also saw a significant relationship between multitasking ability and other success factors such as sales effectiveness. It certainly makes sense that employees who are better able to filter out distractions, focus on customer cues, and quickly navigate answers are more likely to instill customer confidence and better meet customer needs.

6. Pinpoint top multitaskers—the key to success!

Clearly, employees who can effectively manage a variety of tasks are ultimately more successful, less stressed, and more productive. So, how can you best screen for multitasking ability? It seems obvious that text-based assessments will fall short in realistically predicting how someone will manage multiple tasks on the job.  A work sample or simulation is the best option.  When compared with any other testing methods, these are proven to deliver higher accuracy in predicting future job success. By immersing candidates in the same type of fast-paced environment they will experience on the job, you will see which candidates can effectively multitask—and which cannot.

This research underscores the challenge of effective multitasking in a fast-paced workplace. It also highlights the huge pay off of finding and retaining employees who can manage multiple tasks with speed, accuracy, and finesse.