Is Multitasking Really Effective?

Is Multitasking Really Effective?

Prof. Ritu Singh

Specialization: Operations Management and Quantitative Techniques

Multitasking seems like a productive proposition as it makes the person feel that they are getting a lot many things done at once. In the workplace, multitasking is often praised and sometimes even encouraged. However, scientists have discovered that multitasking actually reduces productivity and efficiency by negatively affecting our comprehension, attention, and overall performance. A study published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance indicates that multitasking is less efficient because it takes extra time to shift mental gears every time a person switches between tasks.

Wendy Ellin, a workplace productivity strategist says in her book “[People] think multitasking successfully is somewhat of a badge of honour—but in reality, it kind of makes you stupid,” “You flail around in chaos and wasted minutes trying to figure out where you left off on this project when you redirected your attention to that phone call or email, and it just puts you back instead of moving you forward,” from the book titled Working From Home…How’s That Working For You?

Multitasking: A Special gift?
What if some people claim that they have a special gift for multitasking?
A study was conducted by Sandford researchers on a group of people based on their likelihood to multitask and their belief that it increases their performance. They found that those who frequently multitask and believe that it helps their performance were actually worse at multitasking than those participants who like to do one task at a time. The participants who multitask a lot had more problems organizing their thoughts and retaining important information. They were taking more time to switch from one task to another. Earl Mille, an MIT neuroscientist explains that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.” The required attention for the simultaneous processing of the tasks is tough on our brain. Our brain is forced to switch back and forth between activities when we multitask, creating confusion, errors, etc.
Dr. David Meyer, a Psychology Professor at the University of Michigan says we simply don’t have the brainpower to multitask: “… as long as you’re performing complicated tasks that require the same parts of the brain, you need to devote all that capacity for these tasks, there just aren’t going to be resources available to add anything more.”
Although, in certain situations, one might find that multitasking is slightly more effective and lets us achieve desired results. Wendy Ellin says “When you are not using the same part of your brain for both tasks, it works,” for example, folding laundry while watching TV, listening to songs while walking on the treadmill.”
However, when working on cognitive tasks which require acquiring, organizing, and learning new information in the workplace, multitasking brings trouble.
Disadvantages of multitasking

1.It lowers your IQ

According to a study on multitasking, conducted by the University of London, participants who multitask while working on cognitive tasks experience a drop in their IQ level. Some male participants’ IQ dropped by as much as 15 points leaving them with an average IQ of an 8-year-old child. “When you are trying to have a coherent conversation while writing an email, it doesn’t work. One of those suffers,” says Ellin. “Your brain needs full power for both and can’t work on behalf of both tasks as effectively as on one.”
Kevin and Anthony suggested in their study of “Multi costs of Multitasking” that people who frequently “media multitask” such as scrolling through social media while watching a movie, or listening to music while checking an email, are more distracted and less able to focus their attention even when they are performing only one task. They also suggested that multitasking affects our ability to learn, as, in order to learn, we need to be able to focus.
2.Poor Work Quality

Whether we are drawn away from our first task by a phone notification, by a colleague, or an unexpected task that was put on our desk, it does not allow us to commit 100 percent of our focus on the task and produce a high-quality outcome. When our brain is constantly switching gears to bounce back and forth between tasks, specifically when these tasks require our active attention, we become less efficient and more prone to making mistakes. In addition, studies have shown that the retention rate is quite lower for the information we have learned while multitasking. Everyone’s complaining of memory issues these days – they’re symptoms of this multitasking epidemic. 

3.It slows you down

Although it may seem contrary to the popular belief about multitasking, we tend to work slower and less efficiently when we multitask. This is because of “switching cost” or the negative effect of switching from task to task. The American Psychological Association says that switching between tasks results in a loss of productivity and efficiency. It takes time for our brain to process the end of one task and shift gears to another task. The switching cost might be small at first, but it adds up as you multitask throughout the day.
Ellin says that “It takes sixty-four seconds to retrieve your train of thought after being interrupted by an email”. “Multiply that by fifty times a day and you’re in excess of wasting fifty minutes just from the stopping and starting all day.”
When we are focused on a single task that we have done before, we can work on ‘autopilot’ mode, which frees up our mental resources. Switching back and forth from one task to another bypasses this process and as a result, we tend to work more slowly.

Strategies for managing multiple tasks
 If you’re encountered with multiple tasks and need a way to approach them without multitasking, here are some suggestions from some productivity experts:
  • Create a daily schedule: Write a to-do list for the day including only the tasks for the day- not the future.
  • Identify High priority tasks: Find out important tasks of your day that require your attention. Only put 3-5 things on the list you intend to get done. Not want to, not should do, but intend to get done. Anything more than that is a gift,” says Ellin.
  • Put conscious effort to do one task at a time: Make an effort to do one task at a time, specifically the tasks that require the same side of the brain. Stick to the task until you complete it. If you had to change to a new task in middle, pause for a moment to write down a note to yourself where you were with the first one. This will help you to let go of the important information from the previous task so that you can fully focus on the new task.
  • Time block: Schedule a non-negotiable time for the focused work: Use the "20-minute rule." Instead of constantly going back and forth between the tasks, give your attention to one task for 20 minutes before switching to the other. The objective is to develop an ability to fully focus on the task at hand without any distraction.
  • Limit Distractions: Know when to close your door. As they said in the old days, people used to do this when they had to work hard on something. “Take no prisoners— switch off your phone, and turn off notifications and alarms., just focus on the one project you are working on.”
  • Batch your tasks. If you are having the urge to check your Instagram notification or email, or work on other tasks on the desk, schedule a set time in your day to do it. Group similar types of tasks together and handle them on scheduled time.
  • Reward yourself. “Reward yourself for completing a task, like go for a 10-minute walk outside, a cup of afternoon tea, or a 20-minute meditation break,” Ellin suggests.
So next time you find yourself juggling simultaneously on many tasks, PAUSE. Give your full attention to one task at a time and you will find your productivity, efficiency, and work quality have increased significantly.