Multitasking: The Work Efficiency Myth

October 22, 2015

You are working on a presentation that is to be given in to your supervisor before the end of the day when your colleague asks you for your help on a project. Confident that you will finish your work in time, you willingly tend to your colleague’s request. You then get back to your computer to discover that you have received a number of e-mails that demand your immediate attention. You finally get back to your presentation when the phone rings. In the hope of remaining efficient and of not disappointing your boss at the end of the day, you decide to continue writing an e-mail during your call. Does this situation sound familiar to you?

In this digital era in which workers are constantly bombarded with information that comes from multiple means of communication, most people decide to perform a number of tasks simultaneously in order to remain efficient and meet the daily demands of the work world. We even hear ourselves boast about our abilities to do many things at once and to stay up–to-date with what’s new in order to avoid missing anything.

Although we tend to take on more than one task at once in our daily lives, the tasks that we take on at work usually require a certain level of concentration. In reality, the idea that multitasking makes us more efficient is but a myth. In fact, the majority of researchers in neuropsychology, psychology and organizational science arrive at the same conclusion: attempting to do more than one thing at once simply does not work (Dux et al., 2009 ; Maltin, 2001).

What is multitasking and why is it inefficient?

Used in the past to describe a computer’s capacity to execute many applications simultaneously, the term multitasking now refers to a person’s capacity to do two or more things at once (Pashler, 2000) or to the act of going back and forth between two or more tasks (Buser and Boemi, 2012).

In reality, the idea that the brain is able to execute two tasks at once is only an illusion. The brain simply jumps from one task to another and does so more or less quickly, depending on the situation. This gives us the impression that we are doing two things simultaneously (Dux et al., 2009; Maltin, 2001 ; Pashler, 1994). When we change tasks, our brain takes a certain amount of time to analyze the new information it is receiving. The more complex the task, the longer this will take (Rubinstein et al., 2001). Furthermore, when we attempt to simultaneously focus on two or more tasks, we forget details and have trouble remembering what we have analyzed (Maltin, 2001). For example, although this would be highly useful, it is not possible to attentively follow two conversations at the same time or to write something while having a serious conversation with someone on the phone.

The adverse effects of multitasking

A study by Gonzalez and Mark (2005) found that, on average, people change tasks every three minutes during the course of a typical day. Considering that we take, on average, 25 minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or e-mails, it is estimated that multitasking and interruptions at work can reduce productivity by approximately 40% (Meyer et Kieras, 1997).

Moreover, multitasking reduces our ability to concentrate on something for a long period of time and increases not only the time it takes to accomplish a given task, but also the risk of making mistakes (Adler and Benbunan-Fish, 2012 ; Buser et Boemi, 2012 ; Meyer et Kieras, 1997 ; Pashler, 2000 ; Rogers, and Monsell, 1995 ; Rubinstein et al., 2001 ; Speier et al., 2003). In fact, researchers demonstrate that the more we try to do two things at a time, the more mistakes we make (Adler and Benbunan-Fish, 2012). People perform better when they accomplish one thing at a time without any distractions or interruptions than when they must alternate between tasks, whether the change of tasks is voluntary (e.g. boredom) or involuntary (e.g. interruptions) (Buser et Boemi, 2012).

Other studies tend to demonstrate that people that change tasks more frequently are more stressed (Gendreau, 2007 et Gonzalez et Mark, 2005) and have more trouble concentrating (Applebaum et al., 2008). The act of dividing our attention among different tasks diminishes our capacity to memorize information. For example, a study by Hembrooke and Gay (2003) indicates that students that use a laptop during class have more trouble remembering what was presented in class than those who take notes in the traditional manner.

Strategies to improve productivity in the midst of distractions

Despite the fact that it is inevitable to avoid all distractions in our workplace, there are indeed strategies that can help us improve our performance, become more efficient and reduce daily stress. Here are five helpful tactics:

1. Plan:

The next time you find yourself trying to accomplish more than one thing at a time, take a minute to recap and evaluate the importance of each task that needs to be done. You will be more efficient if you are not preoccupied by everything at once. This way, you will be able to focus solely on what you need to do at that particular moment (Allen, 2001).

2. Organise your time:

Reserve certain time slots during the day to answer e-mails and calls in order to reduce distractions when working on tasks that require more attention. You will resist the urge to constantly check whether you have received any messages.

3. Take breaks:

When you are no longer able to concentrate on a given task, take a short break. This will allow you to step away for a bit and come back with a fresh perspective.

4. Take note of your progress:

It is sometimes unavoidable to have to answer to an emergency or an unexpected situation at work. When you are doing something that requires a lot of concentration, take a minute to jot down where you are at in order for it to be easier to resume the task at a later time.

5. Practice meditation and mindfulness techniques

It is proven that certain meditation practices increase the capacity to concentrate more easily and for a longer period of time on what you are doing. (Levy et al., 2012). You will also be less tempted to change tasks, and in turn, your focus on a given task will better allow you to memorise its content. (Jha et al., 2010 ; Lutz et al., 2008).

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