Multi-Tasking Bandwidth vs. Attention Span: Why You Need to Know the Differences and Connections

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SPAN AND MULTI-TRACKSYou’re looking for a wing (wo)man you can depend on to take on, stick with and follow through on multiple tasks and projects or maybe just one big task. The last to occupy that position was a disappointment, because he couldn’t keep his eye on the balls to be juggled.

What you don’t know is whether that was because he had problems multi-tasking or because he had a short attention span in dealing with any of them.

All you know is that he seemed to bounce from one task to another, doing just enough to create files and folders related to any of the tasks, get some preliminary work done and formulate some ideas and excuses about what remained undone.

Now, you are interviewing candidates to select his replacement. If you’re smart about it, you will do all, or at least some, of the following, lest you risk misunderstanding the situation and helplessly watch work-history repeat itself:

1. Decide which is the more important asset for the job, if you are forced to choose between them: great multi-tasking “bandwidth”, or excellent attention span.

2. Determine whether these are, in this instance, complementary, or competing skills for the job and for the candidate.

3. Ask the candidate for a self-assessment of the degree to which (s)he possesses and values each (as two distinct queries).

4. Ask the candidate which (s)he favors, i.e., prefers to use, and why, e.g., because of greater ease, confidence, intrinsic satisfaction or relevance to and experience with a favored job. (Note that “values” does not equal “displays a preference for in practice”, since we may privately value things that we are too afraid to openly pursue as a preference, e.g., standing up to a bully.)

5. Ask the candidate about work or other experience with substantial multi-tasking and attention span demands.

6. Compare that assessment with your own.

7. Determine whether the candidate can readily switch and juggle tasks as required (with the understanding that a capacity for switching is not equivalent to a capacity for juggling, inasmuch as switching involves only two tasks, whereas juggling anything involves more).

8. Ask the candidate how (s)he would handle or prioritize situations in which multi-tasking had to be sacrificed at the expense of attention span (and vice versa).

Tenacity and Multi-Tasking: Complementary and Competing Job Requirements

Given that, as two skills and job challenges, multi-tasking and tenacity (which is a good measure or criterion of attention span length) are almost by definition inversely correlated—i.e., per unit of time, the greater the degree of one, the lower the degree of the other. You must be prepared, whether you are the recruiter/employer or the candidate, to determine which to place your bets on in the screening process for a job that imposes such a tradeoff.

If your strength as a job candidate is a capacity for intense concentration that, however, makes it difficult for you to switch and juggle tasks, you may want to keep that in mind in targeting a multi-tasker’s job and in your interview self-presentation.

If you are the recruiter assessing not only the multi-tasking bandwidth and attention span of the candidate, but also the degree to which either or both are essential for the job, you should also consider the degree to which the job allows them to be competing skills vs. requires them to be complementary.

The worst-case scenario is a job description that requires multi-tasking and tenacity to be complementary, but which, in practice, precludes that, with one of them supplanting rather than supplementing the other.

Examples of such task bandwidth-attention span “performance conflicts” are easily imagined: a brokerage house that requires sustained and dertailed management of a large number of client accounts; caring social workers with very heavy loads; a recruiter with tenacious dedication to each and every client and job candidate; an air controller with a full screen, to name but a few.

As noted above, of especial concern after hiring, is the under-performing employee seemingly unable to perform to multi-tasking standards. Determining whether that’s because of limited task-bandwidth or short attention span can be a useful first step in addressing the problem or challenge.

If the root of the matter is limited multi-tasking bandwidth, consideration of a job redesign may be worthwhile—specifically, by reducing the number of tasks; on the other hand, if the issue is a limited attention-span, it may be useful to consider steps to make the tasks less time consuming, e.g., simplifying or abridging required documentation, eliminating expendable task redundancies and duplication, setting more flexible deadlines or setting clearer guidelines regarding prioritization of multi-tasking vs. tenacity.

Making such assessments and revisions will, of course, require time and energy, and add more tasks to your own work load or job-seeking efforts. How you handle this challenge may provide clues about your own task and span priorities and gifts…

…while helping you manage a job that requires them.

By Michael Moffa