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Leadership's tip: don't mistake mental agility with multitasking

Are human beings really able to multitask?

Multitasking by human beings is possible when you utilize reactive thinking. If you need to solve a new/different problem/situation you have to use reflective thinking, and your multitasking activity will fail.

What does multitasking mean?

 The definition of multitasking, from the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries, is:

- The ability to do several different jobs at the same time.

Human beings are able to do several different jobs at the same time, but when we are talking about the quality of work, we have to be careful.

First, we have to state the human beings can do a maximum of several (from two to seven) different jobs contemporarily.

I mean that we have five senses and one brain, so we can do only six things per second (because taste and speaking use the same hardware), the best performer can do seven/ten things per second.

For example:

- we can think about a topic, taste an ice cream and smell it, feel fresh air, look a landscape, and hear a colleague;

- we can brush our teeth, while listening to the radio, think about the day's schedule, look at our face, smell the toothpaste and feel the cold water on our skin.

Beyond that, our hardware is full. We do not have any more possibility to do anything else.

Therefore, we can affirm: A normal human being can do simultaneously six things, no one more.

Second, if we talk about the quality of our multitasking work, we come to a conclusion:

We cannot have 100% of quality in every six jobs.

If your boss asks you to do several jobs at the same time you can accomplish the many tasks, but you know (and mainly the boss should know) that you have to divide the quality for each task.

For example:

- If I think about a topic ( 30% of my quality-second), taste and smell an ice cream (30% of my q-s), fell fresh air (10% of my q-s), look at a landscape (10% of my q-s), hear a colleague (20% of my q-s), I will reach 100% percent divided per task. We can change all the percentages, but the result cannot exceed 100%.

Third, every Leader/boss/chief has to know the difference between reactive and reflective thinking in assigning tasks to their subordinates/followers/employees.

System-1 (Reactive Thinking)[1]

Reactive Thinking (System-1) relies heavily on situational cues, prominent memories, trial and error and heuristic thinking (discovering solutions for self) to arrive quickly and confidently at judgments, particularly when situations are familiar and immediate action is required. Many of the judgments that you make every day are automatic or reactive, rather than reflective. When you wake up in the morning and go to work, chances are that unless something dramatic happens, you are on “auto pilot” until you get to work. You probably do not spend a whole lot of time thinking about how to brush your teeth, how to eat breakfast or how to drive to work. Many freeway accidents are often avoided because drivers are able to see and react to dangerous situations quickly. Good decisions emerging from System-1 thinking often feel intuitive. Decisions good drivers make in those moments of crisis, just like the decisions practiced athletes make in the flow of the game or the decisions soldier makes in the heat of battle, are born of expertise, training, and practice. Often the process of reactive thinking involves deciding first, reacting and then trying to make sense out of all of it. Many times if you make a decision based entirely from reactive thinking you may look back and ask yourself, “What was I thinking?”


System-2 (Reflective Thinking)[1]

Reflective Thinking (System-2) is broad and informed problem-solving and deliberate decision making. It is useful for judgments in unfamiliar situations, for processing abstract concepts, and for deliberating when there is time for planning and more comprehensive consideration. Argument making is often part of the deliberation process when making System-2 decisions. Critical thinking is considered System-2 thinking because it is often focused on resolving the problem at hand and at the same time monitoring and self-correcting the process of the situation or problem. If you recall, in the successful learning lesson, we discussed reflective journaling and the importance of reflective thinking. In that lesson you understood that the reflection part of this process begins with a state of doubt, hesitation or perplexity and moves through the act of searching for information that will resolve, clarify or address a situation or problem.


Thanks to the "NCO Leadership" course attended in Kapaun Station (Germany) offered by Inter European Air Force Academy of the United States Air Force, I realized that if you need quality in your work (problem solving and decision-making), you leader should not ask you to do a multitasking activity, because you will lose in quality and you will not activate your reflective thinking. Instead of improving your results, you will crash your human system. I mean, if the several tasks require low quality, you will be able to accomplish it all (if you are well trained). However, you have to consider the fact that without the right training you will not be able to use your reactive thinking correctly.

If the several tasks require high quality, you will be able to accomplish only one task per second (if you are well trained too). Therefore, if your leader/boss asks you to be 24/7 multitasking people, he is not thinking for the sake of your organization, and he is not an effective leader/boss.

Leaders and bosses pay attention!


[1] Kahneman Daniel - Thinking Fast and Slow. 

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