What Does Science Say?
The concept of multitasking has grown in concert with the rapid increase in technology. For me on a personal level, this has blurred stopping points, boundaries, and finish lines. You’ve experienced this. No matter where we retreat, our work follows us closely. Like a bad rash, we know that scratching the itch will make it worse—but we scratch anyway. We are often unaware of the leak in the gas tank—draining away any reserve energy we thought we had.
We have multiple sources of input at any given time. According to one study¹ there is a tremendous increase in media used. But the increase in media usage—internet, television, video games, smart phones, text messaging, email—decreases the amount of attention paid to each device.
Their power to interrupt is growing exponentially. In one study a group of Microsoft workers took an average of 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks (writing reports or computer code), after responding to incoming email or instant messages. Microsoft researchers were surprised by how easily people were distracted, and how long it took them to get back to the task². If it’s bad at Microsoft then you know it’s having an impact in other organizations.
The average worker is interrupted four times an hour. The more challenging the work, the less likely they are to go back to it after the interruption. In other words, our most important work is hit the hardest. The effect is the same as a person who goes to work high or drunk, yet thinks they are being productive.
Can we do more than one thing at a time? The answer is yes and no. It is true that you can fold laundry and watch television because those are different functions of the brain. Driving and listening to the radio can also be done, but when you begin to change the stations, a competing process breaks in and you lose focus on what’s going on around your vehicle. Professional truck drivers are 2300 times more likely to get in an accident while text messaging.
The world of finance uses a term called “switch-cost.” This term describes the recovery time associated with each switch. The same principle applies in “switch-tasking”. Every time you switch rapidly between activities you lose some precious time and loss of attention. In other words, there is a switch cost in switch-tasking. It might be time, or money, or both. Every little switch loses some amount of time and productivity.
So what can be done? Try multi-purposing³. Typing an email and sending it to 6 people is not technically multitasking. It’s multi-purposing. You are bundling things you want to accomplish. Another example would be combining exercise and getting to your clients office by riding a bicycle. But talking on the phone and doing email is not multi-purposing, nor is it technically multitasking. It’s switch-tasking.
The processing part of your brain disallows you to do two or more of these tasks at the same time. You are simply switching, and that’s why time and productivity are lost. Switching back and forth takes time to get your processing head back on track. I have had those instances when I have started writing, got interrupted, and had to go back to the beginning to reorient my mind in order to catch the flow of how I got to where I was in my thinking. Another name for this would be wasted time!
Think of attention as the beam of a flashlight. Try as you will, you can never shine the light on two separate objects simultaneously. What you are doing is rapidly switching the beam back and forth between the objects.
So it is with our attention. When we juggle complex tasks, we are not multitasking. We are simply switching the focus of our attention back and forth between tasks that we are attempting to track. When we switch, our brains must take a moment to reload, remind, and recalculate. In “Brain Rules”, John Medina calls this cognitive switching penalty4.
The B.L.U.F. (Bottom Line Up Front)? Don’t believe the myths about multitasking. Believe the science. Do not let the marvels of our technological advances and gadgets reinforce behavior that is counterproductive.
And don’t do email while on that conference call.
Use, but don’t Abuse.
¹Kaiser Family Foundation; Rosen, Christine. “The Myth of Multitasking.”
²New York Times; “Slow down brave multitasker, and don’t read this in traffic.” Lohr, Steve. March 25, 2007.
³”18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, And Get The Right Things Done.” Bregman, Peter.
4”Brain Rules”. Medina, John.
(Mick Ukleja is the co-author of the book Managing the Millennials: Discover the Core Competencies for Managing Today’s Workforce)
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