The Multitasking Myth

Dear, Anita,

I’m so stressed out!  I’m being pulled in a hundred different directions at work. My office is full of interruptions – from putting out proverbial fires to phone calls from customers to coworkers stopping by to discuss projects. All the while budget reports are due, shipments must go out on time, and meetings must be attended. I’m trying to keep on top of it all but I never feel like my “to do” list gets done. Help!

Dear, Juggling Jim,

Multitasking is bragged about, and often expected in our modern American business culture. But what people who multitask are really doing is shifting from one duty to another, seemingly lightning fast – in effect, juggling.

Three researchers – Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans, and David Meyer – conducted experiments where participants switched between different tasks. You may not be surprised that the test subjects lost time when flip-flopping from one task to another. As tasks grew more complex, even more time was sacrificed.  It is estimated that shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your productive time (American Psychological Association). Take this eye-opening test from the author of The Myth of Multitasking to see just how much toggling between activities can cost time-wise:

The three consequences of multitasking, according to author Dave Crenshaw:

  1. Things take longer.
  2. Mistakes increase.
  3. Stress levels increase.

A University of California, Irvine study of information employees found workers are interrupted every three minutes – that’s about 20 times an hour!  The same study discovered it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on task after being interrupted. (The good news: 82% of interrupted work is resumed on the same day but a Microsoft study showed that 40% of the time, the disrupted task was not resumed immediately following the interruption.)

And what about accuracy? When UC Irvine’s subjects were given a cognitive test, the interrupted group answered correctly 20% less often than the control group that was not deliberately sidetracked. Trains of thought can be derailed by sudden stops and starts.

MultitaskingI don’t think we need a scientific study to come to the conclusion that multitasking increases stress levels. But science does show that the pre-frontal cortex of our brains (the area most involved in multitasking – assessing, prioritizing, and allotting mental resources) is affected by prolonged stress. The hippocampus (the region of the brain that forms new memories and recalls existing ones) can also be damaged by stress, making it difficult to learn new skills and facts.  Stress hormones can also reduce short-term memory – definitely not good when you’re trying to remember what you were doing before you were interrupted!

What’s the solution? I find it very interesting that the only antonym for multitask on is “focus.”  While you may be able to drink your cup of coffee while reading email, for more complex tasks – that quarterly report or client presentation – try to schedule some uninterrupted time to complete intricate projects. You may have to close the office door, and even hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign. But you may be your own worst enemy – a self-interrupter. You don’t have to answer every email the moment you hear it ping in your inbox, or hop on the web to research airfares for your next conference the second it pops in your head. Here are five ways to tame multitasking:

1)      Schedule uninterrupted time for big projects.
2)      Turn off your email alert and check email at scheduled intervals.
3)      Keep your personal cell phone off, and check messages/texts only at lunch or breaks. Try using the Do Not Disturb button on your phone, and return calls at scheduled intervals.
4)      Train your coworkers not to interrupt.  You may need to remove comfy chairs from your office so people don’t linger to chitchat.
5)      Replace your open-door policy to open-door hours instead.

With a few changes in your work habits, juggling can be left to professional performers in the circus.



Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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