How to multitask without losing your mind


Thinkstock / Leah-Anne Thompson

Thinkstock / Leah-Anne Thompson

One of the most important skills you can learn as a nurse–more important than IV starts or how not to get peed on or pooped on–is how to multitask.

Multitasking’s importance varies depending on where you work: If you’re in the well-baby nursery, working the night shift, you won’t use it as much as you will in an urban ED on a Saturday night. Nevertheless, it’s a good skill for new nurses to have.

Multitasking is a skill, and like any other skill, you’ll get better at it the more you practice. You may be going back and forth, back and forth, between patients’ rooms and the supply room right now, but that will eventually change.

It also has a lot to do with organization: The more you can make certain parts of your routine automatic, the better you’ll be able to add things on top of that routine. Experience is the final part of multitasking: The more familiar you are with the way things work on your unit, the better you’ll be able to handle more than one thing happening at once.

There are three very basic things you can do to help you get started:

First, never go anywhere empty-handed. Are you leaving a patient’s room to fill their water jug? Make sure you stop by the supply room on the way back to grab that whatever-it-is the patient in the next room wanted. If you’re passing by room 15 on your way to 18, try to remember that 15 has a dressing change due later today, and take the supplies in there as you go. You’ll look like a monster of efficiency and organization.

Second, make lists. This is key in the organization department–I still do it, mumptey-mumph years in. If you have a lot going on during a shift, taking five minutes at the start of the day to list out the most important stuff (and, if it’s really insane that day, what you’ll need to accomplish it) will save you heartache and give you the mental space to do other things at the same time.

Finally, if you’re on a unit that specializes in one thing, be it peritoneal dialysis or neurosurgery or liver transplants, get as many opportunities as you can to do Those Things that every nurse on your unit has to do. For me, that’s been traction setups, lumbar drains, lumbar punctures, specialized catheter placements…you get the idea. They’re all procedures or treatments that have a specific set of steps that have to be done in a specific way. Get plenty of practice, and setting up for or doing those things becomes second nature. Your brain is free to work on other stuff while you’re strapping things to people’s legs.

And don’t fret too much about it. It’ll come, the same way riding a bike finally became easy. With any luck, you’ll get there without falling over as many times as you did learning to ride a bike.

Agatha Lellis
Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at

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