Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work

Multitasking is one of the biggest buzzwords in business – but the reality is that there is no such thing!

As a matter of fact, the human mind is physically incapable of processing two simultaneously occurring actions.  Instead, what happens during alleged multitasking episodes is that the brain rapidly switches back and forth between tasks.  This task shifting sounds okay, until you realize the consequences…

Your short term memory is only capable of processing between 5-9 things at any given time.  That means that if you’re trying to cram in more information than will fit, something’s going to get lost.  You or your employees are simply going to forget big chunks of the data you’re trying to assimilate.  (Interestingly enough, hypnotists learn that one of the quickest ways to induce temporary amnesia is to introduce distractions.)

One alarming study publicized in the New York Times showed that workers at Google took up to 15 minutes to return to prior levels of productivity when interrupted by a text or incoming email simply because they couldn’t get their minds back in gear.  Chief analyst Johnathan Spira of Basex, a business research firm, estimated the cost of those interruptions at roughly $650 billion per year!

More Alarming Statistics about Multitasking

In his book, Brain Rules, molecular biologist John Medina notes that multitaskers experience a 40% drop in productivity across the board.  Not only that, but they also take 50% longer to accomplish a single task and make up to 50% more errors than workers who focus on a single task at a time.  The result?  You end up with decreased efficiency, higher payroll costs and sub-par products.  Multitasking doesn’t sound quite so good anymore does it?

Would you like your employees to smoke marijuana at work?  No?  What if I told you that some studies indicate that it’s better than multitasking.  As an example, the BBC News reports that the effects of multitasking on IQ are more than twice as bad as smoking marijuana.  The study they cited found that multitaskers experienced a temporary drop in IQ of up to ten points.  That’s compared to the four point drop most experience after smoking a joint.

In addition, multitasking – or attempting to do so – drastically increases stress levels as well.  Indeed, the Seattle Times reports that “cognitive overload” is a significant factor contributing to the “stressing out” of the American workforce.  This stress can have negative effects on workplace morale, personal lives and even overall health, as stress is a huge trigger for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

How to Avoid the Dangers of Multitasking

Is it just a coincidence that the popularity of multitasking has risen in step with the proliferation of technology?  Probably not.  Technology makes attempted multitasking easier.  With email, instant messaging, texts and the internet in general at your fingertips, it’s hard not to be tempted into trying to do more than one thing at a time.  But technology isn’t the root cause of this productivity-killing habit.

Author David Levy, a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Information, writes in his book Scrolling Forward that multitasking – or, what we call “multitasking” – is essentially an imbalance of priorities that we, through bad business practices and reliance on “common knowledge” rather than actual data, have perpetuated.  Somebody, somewhere once said, “Balancing two things at once makes me twice as productive,” and – in spite of all the evidence to the contrary – business leaders still believe this seemingly-logical statement.

So how to you stop this vicious cycle?

Peter Bregman of the Harvard Business Review suggests a three-step solution:

Turn Off or Block Out Distractions

Turn off the cellphone, the IM chat room, and your Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Shut the door.  Pull the shades.  Basically, anything you can do to reduce the temptation to slip away from the task at hand will benefit your productivity in the long run.

Shorten Your Deadlines

It seems counterintuitive, but Bregman suggests that by shortening his deadlines, he forced his mind to concentrate.  Similarly, it might also be helpful for you to “serial task,” as one Internet commenter put it.  This process involves creating a “to do” list that’s prioritized or grouped by task commonality in order to keep everything in perspective.

Allow for Backsliding

Sometimes, it’s simply impossible to block everything else out.  As a result, it’s important that you not allow yourself to become so reliant on total focus that slight distractions completely destroy your productivity.

Lastly, scientists suggest taking short breaks or accomplishing dissimilar tasks back-to-back in order to allow the brain to recharge and avoid stress, memory loss and other unnecessary interruptions in productivity.  Doing so represents a far better approach to take in order to improve overall productivity than attempting to multitask ineffectively!

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