A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Are You a Multitasking Master? Think Again.

by on May 14, 2014

Multitasking is a myth. Odds are you are not the multi-tasking ace you claim to be. Evidence shows that multi-tasking actually reduces overall efficiency. A 2013 University of Utah study revealed that people generally overestimated how much they are able to accomplish through multitasking. In addition, the findings indicated a relationship between multitasking and the lack of ability to block out distractions and focus.

Working in a public library means being a master juggler. Someone who can answer the latest reader’s advisory question, and then talk a new patron through downloading an ebook while dealing with an overflowing book return. Public librarians are answering phones, chat, email, and in person questions, sometimes all at the same time. In reality, trying to manage all of these tasks simultaneously isn’t practical or sustainable. Below are some strategies to help you to avoid the multitasking trap.

Use a tool like Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix to help prioritize your time. Divide your tasks into four quadrants – urgent and important, urgent and not important, important not urgent, not important and not urgent. Devote at least part of each day to something in the “important but not urgent” quadrant, like your library’s strategic plan goals.

Try using an online task manager like Remember the Milk or Trello to arrange your lists and projects. Both of these programs allow you to share tasks with others – take advantage of this! Some email programs also have integrated task lists that allow you to schedule tasks directly from a message. Find a method that works for you.

Manage Your Email
This is one of most powerful ways to reclaim your time. Email and social media have been shown to be as addictive as alcohol and nicotine. Plan your day to focus the amount of time you spend using electronic communication rather than allowing it to interrupt your day. Read and respond to email on a schedule rather than leaving it open throughout the day. Check to see if your email program allows you to choose “push” options for delivery. If possible, set your account to check for new messages no more than every 15 or 30 minutes. This bunches your incoming messages into more sizable chunks.

If you haven’t already, learn to use tags, labels, folders, and filters to help structure your email in a meaningful way. If you subscribe to a listserv like publib, create a filter that puts all of those emails in a folder. Create a filing system that allows you to quickly sort or group your messages in ways that make sense, such as by topic, by sender or by project. Turn off notifications if you use a smartphone. Even visual reminders of an incoming message serves as an interruption to other, probably more important, activities. These strategies will allow you to spend less time checking and more time actually reading and responding to messages.

Delegate and Collaborate
Learn the strengths of your co-workers, staff members, and volunteers. Leverage them. Does a co-worker have a special hobby that aligns perfectly with what needs to be done? Is one of your staff looking to grow in this area? Match your tasks with these opportunities, and everyone wins. Delegation should not be merely passing off something you don’t want to do. Delegation is finding the person who not only has the time, but also the passion and motivation to do a task better–and sometimes faster–than you could.

Don’t overlook the power of collaboration. If you’re looking to offer a program, does another organization specialize in the topic? Is there a local group or agency looking for a volunteer opportunity? Finding others to help you accomplish goals and objectives can lighten your workload and create long-term solutions that are more manageable.


  • Covey, Stephen, First Things First. New York, 1994.
  • Sanbonmatsu, David, Strayer, David, Medeiros-Ward, Nathan, and Watson, Jason, “Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking.” PLoS ONE no. 8 (2013): e54402, doi:10.1371/journal.pone00544.

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