The Unproductive Side Effects Of Multitasking
Want to find out if you're an effective multitasker? Take this quick quiz:
- Are you human?
The results are in: you fail! Or, more accurately, multitasking fails. Many of us pride ourselves on juggling numerous responsibilities simultaneously, and we demand employees who can do the same. It makes us feel busy. It makes us feel as if we are using our time more productively. The actual effects of multitasking, however, prove these feelings to be nothing more than an illusion. And illusion is a weak foundation for results. Ready to build a real one?
What's happening in the brain when we multitask? Say you are working on a financial report. The phone rings, and you continue to work as you take the call. According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, renowned neurosurgeon:
You're not actually doing both activities at the same time, in fact, you're diverting your attention from one part of your brain to another part of your brain. That takes time, that takes resources, that takes brain cells.
It's true that we can shift focus incredibly fast - as quickly as a 10th of a second. But, says Gupta, "the time doesn't matter as much as the bandwidth the brain requires to move back and forth." This shifting can decrease productivity by as much as 40 percent. Even worse, quality suffers, and multitaskers are much less likely to engage in creative thinking than their monotasking counterparts.
Multitaskers face another major disadvantage. UCLA's Dr. Russell Poldrack says, "Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized." In other words, you cannot as easily apply your learning to new situations or use it in different ways.
What's Worse for Your IQ: Lack of Sleep, Marijuana, or Multitasking?
If you guessed "multitasking," you're right. Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multitasking with electronic media caused a more precipitous drop in IQ (15 points, putting you somewhere in the range of an 8-year old child) than smoking marijuana or losing a full night's sleep.
Ironic, considering job ads rarely call for "pot smokers, insomniacs, and 8-year old children only," while those saying "only multitaskers wanted" are fairly common. They shouldn't be.
Stanford's Dr. Clifford Ness, who has studied the topic extensively, says, "People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted." In short, Ness concludes, they're "pretty much mental wrecks."
Study after study affirms that multitasking makes us less effective, reduces productivity, increases mistakes and distraction, and costs $450 billion annually. Another irony: we multitask because we believe it will make us more - not less - effective.
Effective multitasking is possible only when one of the tasks is automatic: e.g. walking and chewing gum. Add anything more challenging to the mix - listening, responding to clients, giving feedback to subordinates, crafting communications, browsing websites, checking email, etc. - and you have an unproductive, time-wasting mess. How do you start to clean it up?
A few tips:
- Think like an athlete. A Families and Work Institute study found that 56 percent of employees often work on too many tasks simultaneously, and that they often make mistakes as a result. Ellen Galinsky, cofounder and president of the Institute, suggests approaching tasks like an athlete.
"The way our minds work, we function better with rest and recovery. People in sports know you can't just push, push, push." Allow for downtime between tasks, similar to the way athletes rest between practice and competition.
- Limit distractions. When you have a task that requires deep thought, turn off the potential for interruption. Silence your phone and message alerts. Close your door. If you don't want to disconnect for a long period, commit to spending 15 minutes monotasking with a one minute tech break.
- Choose the right time. It's not realistic to expect that you can monotask during your busiest periods, such as the beginning of the day. Instead, set yourself up for success by choosing to focus during slower times. If you have an important task that requires your full attention, schedule it for these less frantic moments.
- Stop expecting your people to multitask all the time! Teri Hockett, CEO of What's For Work, says, "In today's economy it's important to be able to wear many hats, but not always at the same time. Yes, multitasking is generally a valued skill when interviewing a candidate or evaluating an employee. However, the ability to determine the need to unitask and set aside the appropriate amount of time is a much more valuable skill."
You may pride yourself on your ability to multitask - but wouldn't it be better to pride yourself on enhanced productivity and stellar results? Quit the habit, embrace monotasking, get more done. And get it done better.