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multi-tasking 101 for live chat operators

Multi-Tasking 101 for Live Chat Agents

Live chat agents are supposed to be experts at multi-tasking, but with all of the simultaneous chats and emails, it’s possible that you’re struggling more than your supervisors know.

Daniel J Levitin PhD explains the dilemma of multi-tasking in his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Dutton,2015):

“In order to understand one person speaking to us, we need to process 60 bits of information per second. With a processing limit of 120 bits per second, this means you can barely understand two people talking to you at the same time.”

The truth is what many of us expected all along: human beings have a very limited capacity to split our attention. Our hunter-gatherer minds haven’t caught up to this age of information overload, and live chat agents are no exception.

If you work for a small team, you may be overwhelmed with support tickets and emails; if you work for a large team, meetings, training, and reports may dominate your day.

While giving customer service agents the ability to conduct chats simultaneously is one of the big advantages to live chat over other channels, it’s actually a very hard thing to do. Unfortunately, the demands of live chat can leave you burnt out while important things fall through the cracks. (Take this multi-tasking test to see what we mean.)

But if multi-tasking is redefined to instead embrace what our minds are capable of (instead of forcing it to do what it can’t), then it can actually be seen as a set of mental skills and time management techniques that you can master.

The first step in effective multi-tasking is throwing out the old definition, and bringing in the new:

Effective multi-tasking isn’t: The ability to concentrate on multiple things at once.

Effective multi-tasking is: The ability to masterfully switch attention from one task to another.

Use the following tips to hone your multi-tasking skills and feel sane doing it.

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Limit Attentional Switching

It’s better to accept your limits and learn how to work around them. As Levitin points out, “Attention is a limited-capacity resource.” There is only so much of it we have in a given moment, and attentional switching (moving from one mental task to another) drains it.

The part of our brain that regulates attentional switching is called the Insula, and Levitin warns us that, “if called upon too often, we feel tired and a bit dizzy, as though we were see-sawing too rapidly.We shouldn’t waste it trying to think about too many things at once.

So what does this mean for you in practical terms?

  • Value Your Flow
    In order to be effective at splitting your attention, finish that response and hit send before moving to the next customer or support ticket. When a new chat pops up while you’re writing a sentence to a customer, take those extra two seconds to finish your train of thought. Remember that it taxes your brain to have to re-enter that state of mind later.
  • Learn to Offload
    Levitin calls the process in which we commit a thought to an external source, “offloading”. This may sound complicated but it’s actually rather simple: if you are in the middle of a task or an important thought as an inquiry comes in, write it down. Writing, after all, is the original offloading technology! When you are finished with the task at hand, you can review your notes to see what offloaded items you should attend to next.
  • Find the “Bookmark” Places
    When you’re reading a good book, you don’t want to have to stop in the middle of a suspenseful section or in the middle of the sentence. Similarly, you should find the groove in your activity that’s a good place to move on from.

The best way to do this is to divide your tasks into mini-tasks; for example, if you are talking to multiple people at once, you may choose to respond before switching your attention to another customer (you don’t want an unrelated issue to be interfering with your thoughts). Or divide emails into “draft” and “edit” phases, which would allow for more natural pauses.

Create a Flexible Schedule

multi-tasking 101 for live chat agents

According to Kevin Kruse (writer and expert on habits of the ultra successful), millionaires and high-performing athletes meticulously schedule their days, sometimes down to the minute.

Unfortunately, this can be nearly impossible to do if you don’t have the freedom to set strict boundaries that protect these pockets of time. You can’t schedule when a customer will choose to start a chat, or for that matter, when five customers will choose to start chatting with you at once. Naturally, you can adjust agent capacity ratios as needed. But live chatting is often not your only responsibility, and you can become just as swamped with internal communications, emails, and support tickets.

The way to get around such militant scheduling while remaining effective is to create a flexible schedule. A flexible schedule is when you prioritize the right things (which primes your mind and keeps them ready in your subconscious), and then anticipate pockets of down time to do them in.

Creating a flexible schedule can be broken down into two steps:

  1. Prioritize Possible Tasks
    Concentrate on tasks to be completed at the beginning of the day, before accepting any chats. While reviewing potential tasks, consider the following two things: Do I have to do it today? Can I do it today? If the answer is yes to both, then the activity should be scheduled for any foreseeable downtime. If the answer is yes to a and no to b, then you should contact another agent or supervisor for support. If the answer is no to a and yes to b, you should tentatively schedule the task only if the highest priority activities are completed (those that are yes to both). For example, if live chat agent Alexis knows she has to send out customized follow-up emails to a batch of customers, she’ll know that the task is time-sensitive. Alexis knows it would be best to do it today (yes to a), but she has committed to do an evaluation for her supervisor today (no to b). In order to reconcile this issue, she might decide to contact other agents for help with her follow-up emails, with a CC to her supervisor.
  2. Anticipate Free Time
    Most live agents already know the flow of their workdays, but it’s important to formally investigate into the peaks and valleys of chat requests. This can easily be accomplished by measuring visitor chat requests per hour over a quarter.When you have this data on hand you become aware of how much time throughout the day you truly have to complete additional tasks. This also prevents you from “biting off more than you can chew” and promising to deliver things that cannot be reasonably completed with the time you have available, like Alexis in the example above.

Leverage Distractions Purposefully

There are moments when you will have to abandon what you’re doing and take on a time sensitive issue. Luckily, there is a way to productively leverage these forced moments of attention-changing.

Paul Burgess, a multi-tasking researcher at University College, London, gives the example of being interrupted by a phone call in a New York Times article: “Make calling others one of the things that needs to be scheduled…And if you have to answer the call, don’t go straight back to what you were doing before the call arrived. Very deliberately check the time, and ask yourself if there was something else you should have been doing.”

Once your mind has already broken from a train of thought, you should consider what else can be done while your mind is free from the task at hand. It’s similar to asking your friends, “Who else needs a drink?” when you’re on your way to the kitchen. There’s no need to make multiple trips, and it’s the same thing for your brain.

So whenever something interrupts your mental flow, ask yourself:

  • Do I have any calls to make?
  • Did I overlook any emails?
  • Do I have any customers on chat to respond to?
  • Have I recorded down any pertinent information for my boss?

For example: Alexis was working on an email reply to a customer. But since she was distracted by an instant message from a co-worker asking a question, now might be a good time for her to give her supervisor an update on that report she was compiling earlier.

This practice will not only help you protect one of your greatest mental resources (attention), but also help you be much more efficient.

Create a Task Filter

multi-tasking 101 for live chat agents

Even when you’re unconsciously filtering things out, your mind is primed to respond to certain sights, signs, or sounds. Much like driving on the road, when things get bumpy your mind shifts out of autopilot. Levitin points out in his book that if we notice ridges in the asphalt we may relax, but if we can’t figure out the reason for the bumpy ride, we may decide to pull over and inspect the car. As a live chat agent you need to learn which things, metaphorically speaking, are just ridges in the asphalt.

Establish with your supervisors what issues are worth pausing a task for.

If you both decide that it is best to focus on increased resolution time, then you can agree that team or company emails and messages are secondary. Additionally, use tools like instant message away notifications, or mute internal messaging system notifications so you are not distracted.

Create an agreement with your supervisors if they are fearful that extremely important messages will go ignored.

Ask that important emails be labeled as urgent, and that supervisors call you instead of ping you for time-sensitive issues. Agree to check your email periodically (if your notifications are off) and that you will keep your phone on you at all times.

If your boss or supervisor is resistant to the idea, forward them this passage from The Organized Mind:

Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.


As Daniel J. Levitin wrote, “Attention is the most essential mental resource for any organism.”

Your ability to work effectively and solve problems is many times dependent on your ability not only to focus your attention, but also to guard it and treat it well.

Multi-tasking shouldn’t be an excuse to have a chaotic mind full of shifting to-do lists and half-baked assignments. Study your environment and habits carefully, then work with your supervisors and use the tips above to optimize your team’s performance.

Download now: The Guide to Becoming a Top Performing Live Chat Agent

Download now: The Guide to Becoming a Top Performing Live Chat Agent

Effectiveness, efficiency and professionalism are the core skills of an excellent agent. This eBook discusses all the essential tips for live chat agents to communicating effectively, addressing customer issues efficiently, and representing your brand or company in a professional manner.

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Carla Jerez

About Carla Jerez

Carla Jerez is a senior content writer at Comm100. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Florida State University and has years' experience writing for the SaaS industry. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, traveling, or playing around on Photoshop. Connect with her on LinkedIn.