The Myth of Multitasking

by Anne Koproski

We've all heard it. Some people say they are great multitaskers. Perhaps you have said it about yourself. I used to claim I was a great multitasker; that's why I could get so many things done. Lately I've been wondering if it makes me less productive, less relational, more distracted and just down right more rude.

Ever have a conversation with someone whose phone starts to vibrate? Perhaps they glance at it, maybe even focus on it while you try to finish your sentence. Or, ever have a telephone conversation with someone and you know they are doing something else at same time? How does it make you feel? Not too valued. There have been many times I'd like to say, just shut the phone off or call me when you can give me your undivided attention.

I don't believe anyone is really multitasking. It's more like switching tasks in mid-stream, and spending more time trying to figure out where they left off. Wouldn't it be better to just finish one task before moving on to the next? Commit to one and do it to the best of your ability?

Research on the Negative Effects of Multitasking

There have been a number of studies about the negative effects of multitasking:

  • Increased Attention and Safety:
  • According to Steven Nguyen in his "Multitasking Doesn't Work" article in Workplace Psychology, "Perhaps no other example better illustrates why multitasking doesn't work than distracted driving. Studies have found that driving while distracted (being on the phone or texting) is actually more dangerous than driving drunk."
  • The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration notes that texting while driving makes you 23 times more likely to crash. And, according to Distraction.Gov, sending or receiving a text takes a driver's eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field at 55 mph, blind.
  • Decreased Productivity:
  • An American study reported in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology found that it took students far longer to solve complicated math problems when they had to switch to other tasks—in fact, they were up to 40% slower.
  • Studies by Gloria Mark, a University of California scientist, showed that people work faster when they are frequently switching tasks, but they produce less. And after 20 minutes of being interrupted, they report considerably higher levels of stress and frustration.
  • Drop in IQ:
  • Results of a study carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry by psychiatrist Glenn Wilson indicated that excessive use of technology reduced workers' intelligence. A full 10 point drop in IQ by those distracted by incoming email and phone calls was reported, which is more than two times that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana. Additionally, knocking a whole ten points from your IQ is similar to the head-fog caused by losing a night's sleep.
  • Douglass Merrill, in his 2012 article, "Why Multitasking Doesn't Work," states "our brains just aren't equipped for multitasking tasks that do require brainpower. Unfortunately, our short-term memories can only store between five and nine things at once." He points out that two simultaneous, separate streams of information cannot be taken in and encoded fully into our short-term memory. If it's not in short-term memory, then it's not going to long-term memory. "If you can't recall it, you can't use it."

Impact on Relationships

Computers don't perceive non-verbal clues, computers are not empathic (despite Siri's attempts to sound so), computers don't listen for the catchpoint or hope we have a follow-up coffee date. Computers don't lose sleep over a request to replay a video for the umpteenth time because someone was talking on the phone and missed the point.

People need connection, people need to feel valued, and they need to be understood. I know how I've felt when it's clear the person I'm trying to communicate with is not "with" me 100%. And, it's never because they are just staring off into space—they have chosen to perform another activity at the same time.

And I have felt guilty when I have been inattentive to others. Frankly, it's why I now have a DVR. So when my husband or kids come in, I don't have to choose between a conversation with them and the last 10 minutes of that murder mystery.

Impact on Efficiency

Have you ever started writing an email and another pops up? You switch over to that one and realize there is an important deadline needing to be met. So you change gears to finish the document you started for that project yesterday, only you can't find it because you saved it in the wrong folder. After repeated searches, you find the document, make your edits, send it off and go on to the next thing. Two hours later, someone asks if an order was placed and you realize that's the email you didn't finish when you responded to the "urgent" one. On and on it goes. This merry-go-round ride just decreased my efficiency, productivity and, I'm convinced, my IQ too!

Benefits of focusing on one thing at a time:

  • Live in the moment –Enjoy the sunrise, sunset, rain falling. Enjoy the people who come into your life—engage more fully, invest in the relationship. Stay connected to what is going on around you.
  • Increase productivity – Time is not wasted switching between two or more tasks, trying to figure out where you left off. And you don't decrease someone else's productivity because you are repeating yourself and rehashing items already discussed or rescheduling meetings that could have already been completed.
  • Finish what you start –Feel the sense of accomplishment instead of frustration or stress for going in too many directions without successfully completing what needs to be done. I realize many times distractions may be welcome because the project isn't one we wanted to work on anyway. But, the resultant anxiety from not producing is worse. So feel good about following it through. (And, if you get bored or need to make progress on more than one item, you can always set a 20-30 minute chunk of time rather than switching from minute to minute. You will be that much closer to finishing all items.)
  • Increase your creativity – Multitasking uses temporary storage in our brain, called working memory, much like the temporary files in our computers. According to a 2010 study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers suggest that when that storage is used up, it may not leave room for our problem-solving skills to develop; it may be harder to daydream and be creative. And some type of work requires some hard, focused thinking, whether it be your own creation or reading someone else's. Multitasking prevents you from doing this.
  • Lose weight! – This one may not work as the next diet fad, but being distracted while eating can prevent your brain from knowing what you've eaten. As a result, you may not feel as full and may be tempted to continue eating.

If we think we are highly successful at multitasking, we are kidding ourselves. Our brain lets us think we are and we continue doing it. Many studies using brain imaging have pointed to what has been suspected for a long time—are brains are not made to multitask. And, people who multitask most frequently think they are actually the best at it. In fact, they are the worst.

So, I'm trading in my imperfect attempts at multitasking for the joy and benefits of doing fewer things better. What about you?

Anne Koproski, sales & marketing associate for Communico Ltd., has more than 30 years of experience in all aspects of office management, administration, process development, operations and sales support.
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