Career advice

Super-switching: How to master the art of multitasking

Juggling duties may hinder productivity, but for nurses it's often the only choice. So how can you train the brain to switch attention?

Juggling duties may hinder productivity, but for nurses it's often the only choice. So how can you train the brain to switch attention?

We have all been there – darting from one task to the next as we try to meet our daily targets and fulfil the demands of packed schedules. It has become a way of life for most occupations, including high-demand professions such as nursing. 

Yet research has shown that switching between tasks can impair performance, and result in 'task-switching costs', where we perform more slowly and become more prone to errors.

Introducing errors

In his book Brain Rules, author and molecular biologist John Medina says: 'Multitaskers take 50% longer to accomplish a single task and make as many as 50% more errors.’ This affects productivity and efficiency, not something nurses can afford, given the high stakes involved.

It is common for nurses to face the prospect of juggling multiple tasks. On any given shift, they may be required to educate patients, communicate with a variety of colleagues, administer medication, complete documentation and assist with an emergency, among other duties. In such circumstances, switching between tasks can dilute focus and heighten the risk of error. 

For nurses, task-switching and multitasking is not a choice – often it’s the only option

Nurse researcher Po-Yin Yen says 'a fundamental understanding of multitasking within nursing workflow is important in today’s dynamic healthcare environment'. Her research, however, shows that even though multitasking is essential in healthcare systems, it is even more vital to evaluate its impact in the context of patient care.

Reinforcing these observations, Dr Nancy Napier says: ‘The brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we hoped it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly.’ 

Each switch involves a stop-start process in the brain, which costs time and triggers mistakes, but there are methods of overcoming this task-switching failure in pursuit of becoming a ‘super-switcher’. 

The secret of successful super-switchers

For nurses, task-switching and multitasking is not a choice – often it’s the only option. The secret ingredient for task-switching success is efficiency, and although this sounds easy in theory, what about in practice?

Here are some tips: 

  • Consolidate: When it feels like you have too much on your plate, consolidate certain tasks. For example, you could combine washing patients with changing dressings, or adjust assessments or clinical observations to fit in with a patient’s medication schedule where possible.
  • Delegate: Nurses can seem almost super-human, but you can’t do everything on your own. Don’t be afraid to delegate among co-workers – nursing is a team sport. 
  • Prioritise: Consolidation and delegation must be done while keeping priorities in perspective. There will always be a task that needs your attention first before you move on to other responsibilities.
  • Manage time: It is okay to not spend quality time each day with every patient. Time management is key to wading through the myriad duties of nursing in a high-stress clinical environment, and your patients do understand that.
  • Communicate: Be a team player and communicate effectively. Be clear, direct, immediate, patient and polite in your messaging. 

Super-switchers train their brains to master the art of effectively shifting attention from one task to another. The key is to strike a balance between time management, coordination, consolidation, delegation and prioritisation.

And remember to take a breather from time to time; you are not a machine, so when managing your multitasking endeavours, make sure to schedule a 'me time' switch.


Dr Nicola Davies is a health psychologist and writer 

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