Multitasking Is a Myth

Years ago, when I was in management position interviewing potential employees, one of my favorite questions was “How well do you multitask?” Then, I would often proceed asking a candidate to give me an example on the specific tasks she had done simultaneously in the past. I thought that if one can do several things at the same time, one would be more efficient and productive. Even more so, if my department is comprised by multitaskers we can be a real winner! Now I know better.

Research is very clear that multitasking results in 20%-40% of productivity loss. We lose time when we are jumping from task to task trying complete them in small increments, or literally do two things at the same time such as writing an email and discussing a project. Switching between tasks may only add a few tenths of a second, but this can start to add up when we switch back and forth repeatedly. This might not only result in productivity loss, but also can be a safety issue in some cases, such as when we are talking on the phone and driving a car in heavy traffic. While we multitask, we make mistakes, thus we have to factor in time that it takes to go back and correct errors. Multitasking is especially unproductive when it involves the same sensory systems – listening to the customer on the phone and listening to your coworker next to you.

Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, who dedicated a greater part of his career to research the impact of multitasking on our brains, indicated that multitasking diminishes our concentration and creativity. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy, and they involve much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. They can’t effectively manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. An interesting finding is that people who multitask most of time, think that they are very effective at completing several tasks simultaneously. However, from an objective standpoint, they are not. The more one multitasks, the worse one becomes at multitasking.

Multitasking also creates greater stress levels. University of California Irvine researchers measured the heart rates of employees with and without constant access to office email, and unsurprisingly, they found that those who received a steady stream of messages stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant email access were less stressed and their heart rates were slower. The consequences of multitasking can be stressful, too. If one works on an important project, yet the outcome is poor because he could not tune out all unimportant distractions, the situation itself can be the cause of stress.

We can make a cognizant decision not to multitask by turning off our email messaging, placing phones in in purses, and creating a physical environment to protect your brain from multitasking. Thus, if you have six additional browser windows open, or talk on the phone while you are trying to read this, then stop and regroup. Our brains are wired to do only one quality thing at the time.