Multitasking is the American way of life. But does it really help you get more done? One Saint Leo professor offers an alternative.
By Dr. Todd Senft
Saint Leo Center for Online Learning
You’re sitting at your desk at work eating your lunch, working on a discussion post for your online marketing course. Meanwhile, you’re on hold with the pediatrician waiting to discuss your son’s allergies. Your boss sends you an urgent so you click on your inbox to reply.
Handling several tasks at one time, switching gears from one to the other, you may think you’re making the most of your lunch hour. But are you really getting a lot accomplished?
Students in an online degree program are, for the most part, busy working adults with family responsibilities and other commitments, in addition to work and school. I know in my online business classes, the topic of multitasking comes up often. It’s an important one that I enjoy discussing with students because I believe multitasking is largely misunderstood and vastly overrated.
In my opinion – which is based on scientific evidence – the harm caused by multitasking far outweighs any perceived advantages.
There’s no avoiding the fact that multitasking is a highly desirable skill in today’s busy, technologically driven world. Conventional wisdom tells us we are productive workers and students if we can simultaneously juggle multiple tasks.
This is, perhaps, an outgrowth of our current society. Studies show that in a typical office environment, we are interrupted as many as 11 times an hour.
When self-imposed interruptions, like checking text messages and emails, are factored into the equation, the working hour is fragmented even more. For example, if you check your email four times each hour, in addition to the 11 random interruptions, the work hour is divided by one interruption every four minutes. As a result, there is very little attention devoted to any single task.
Still, Americans try to do it all simultaneously, and the pressure is on for workers to be experts in multitasking. Bosses expect it. Prospective employers demand it. We expect it of ourselves. Friends and co-workers extol its virtues. Everyone seems to be doing it! Multitasking appears to be the new social skill to advance personally, academically, and professionally in today’s society.
Evidence against multitasking
As it turns out, multitasking is not as efficient or effective as commonly believed. Research suggests that work productivity for both challenging and non-challenging activities is negatively related to interruptions.
In many work instances, we can only perform one task at a time.
For example, you may stop studying your school work to respond to emails as they come into your inbox. You probably think you’re doing a great job of multitasking but, in reality, you can either study or answer emails, but you cannot perform both tasks at the same time. In a case like this, multitasking is clearly a fallacy.
Research suggests a much more efficient approach would be to first complete your studying before answering emails.
There are, however, activities that are able to be performed simultaneously. Surely, multitasking must be a good strategy in these instances, right?
Consider a situation where you are required to be on a webinar at noon, but you have a school or work assignment with a midnight deadline. You decide to multitask by working on the assignment during the webinar.
If you are like me, you will focus primarily on the assignment. As a result, you miss most of the information on the webinar and complete very little of the assignment. To add insult to injury, I will often later listen to a recorded session of the webinar to learn what I missed during the original meeting. This is terribly inefficient.
Your brain while multitasking
While this example would suggest that I am a poor multitasker, there is a neurological explanation for this limitation. Although both tasks can be worked on simultaneously, the brain’s bandwidth is shared, resulting in an overall reduction in processing power, efficiency and effectiveness.
If the brain’s processing capacity is thought of as a pie, multitasking would suggest that, at the very least, each task consumes a slice of the pie to maximally accomplish each task, thereby using 100 percent of the brain’s processing capacity.
In other words, we should be able to devote 100 percent of the brain’s processing capacity to accomplish two tasks with each task using up 50 percent of the pie.
Given what is known about neurology, the brain is limited in terms of our ability to multitask: 100 percent of the pie will be used, but less than 50 percent is used for each task due to the bandwidth needed for switching between tasks. Therefore, the efficiency, effectiveness, speed, quality, attention, and overall performance for both tasks are reduced.
A better alternative to multitasking: time management
A better strategy for accomplishing competing interests amongst limited brain processing capacity would be time management. The power of time management can be easily mastered with basic tools like Google Calendar (or any calendar program), a spreadsheet, or any other method for organizing your tasks into time slots, including pad and paper.
I use a calendar program and a spreadsheet to manage my tasks. At the start of each day, I know exactly what specific tasks I need to accomplish and when to accomplish them. My personal preference is to rid myself of the small tasks early in my day (e.g. responding to emails, returning calls, reading articles, etc.), so I can devote my undivided attention to the larger and more intensive tasks later in the day including grading tests and papers.
The time management approach takes discipline since it is easy to get drawn into unplanned activities such as emails. As Jason Fitzpatrick points out on his LifeHacker blog post, “Most of us fell into the habit [of multitasking] because the allure of getting more done is too strong to pass up.” Based upon what we now know, that allure is a mirage that should be dismissed since it will not quench our thirst for productivity.
Tips for single-tasking
Leo Babauta, author and creator of Zen Habits – a blog about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives – offers several suggestions to keep focus on a single task.
- Maintain awareness: Be cognizant of the distractions that can interrupt your work. Make a conscious effort to maintain your singular focus on the task at hand.
- Rid the clutter: Close computer programs, turn of the TV, shut the office door, and silence the phone.
- Take breaks: Step away briefly as you transition between tasks.
The case for single-tasking
To avoid falling back into the trap of multitasking, it’s useful to remember some of the benefits of single-tasking.
- Productivity: Devoting 100 percent of the brain’s processing capacity to a single task is much more productive than the diminished capacity realized through switching amongst various activities.
- Harmony: Redirecting your focus on a singular task eliminates the stress of trying to manage multiple tasks. Relish the great sense of satisfaction as each task is crossed off the to-do list.
- Health: Various studies have found a relationship between having a singular focus and numerous health benefits, including increased happiness, memory and concentration and decreased levels of anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Competing priorities are an ever-increasing reality in today’s world – especially for adults who are trying to juggle careers, education, family and other responsibilities. So it is likely that multitasking will continue to be a venerated, albeit, misconceived idea.
For those of us aware of the evidence against multitasking and in favor of single-tasking, we have the knowledge to improve our productivity, harmony, and physical and mental well-being.
With years of sales and marketing with companies such as Iron Mountain, Concentra and UPS, Todd Senft shares his business experience – and feelings about multitasking -- with online students around the world. He is a recovering multitasker and approaches life one task at a time. Some of the things he allocates times for are family, teaching, reading, volunteering, travel and pampering his dogs. He resides in Atlanta with his wife Gina.
Do you believe in multitasking as a means of being more productive? Why or why not? Share with us in the comments!
Image Credit: Annette Shaff on Shutterstock.com
Sources: “Being present makes you happier,” Presence; “The Cost of Not Paying Attention,” Basex; “The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome,” Zen Habits; “A Case for Singletasking: The One-Task-at-a-Time Method,” Lifehacker; “Your Brain on Multitasking,” CNN News; “Media multitasking is associated with symptoms of depression and social anxiety,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking; “Impact of Interruptions on White Collar Workers,” Engineering Management Journal“Impact of Interruptions on White Collar Workers,” Engineering Management Journal
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