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| May 9, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Stop it!  It simply isn’t good for you.
In last week’s Tuesday Reading, Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity, Shane Anderson, talked about his multitasking in meetings in order to meet deadlines and complete his work.  He discovered, when he stopped multitasking, that there was a lot of important content in the meetings that he simply was unaware of because at that moment his brain was otherwise engaged.
Multi-tasking is trying to be fully engaged in two things at the same time.  It turns out that almost all of us (research says about 98%) don’t multitask at all well.  For the most part, when we think we are multi-tasking, we are actually switching back and forth between two tasks, with the loss of several tenths of a second every time we switch while the brain “saves” one context and “restores” the previous one.  While we are focused on one context, we are generally unaware of any events that may be occurring in the other context.  Studies have shown that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40% because every time we switch our brain has to take some time to refocus. 
Although we think that the concept of multitasking is linked with the availability of technology, the concept really is not new.  Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, in early 18th century England, wrote “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once;  but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”
Neuroscientists studying how the brain works are concerned that our tendency to divide our attention, rather than focus, is hampering our ability to perform even simple tasks.  They note that this can have extremely negative impacts on our attentiveness, our ability to learn which requires our being attentive, and our ability to be purposeful, in the moment and non-judgmentally. 
In addition to not being very effective in getting additional work done, and decreasing your productivity, multitasking:

  • Can introduce errors in your work, particularly if your activities involve critical thinking.
  • May increase your stress.
  • Can disrupt short-term memory making it harder to regain focus.
  • Can impact relationships when one person interrupts a conversation to take a phone call or to check messages.
  • May reduce creativity.  Multitasking consumes a lot of “working memory” reducing our capacity to daydream and generate spontaneous “ah ha” moments.
  • May be dangerous for you.  Research has shown that texting or talking on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, can be as dangerous as driving drunk.  And, in the same vein, people who use mobile devices while walking are less likely to look before stepping into a crosswalk, and more likely to walk into people and stationary objects. 
  • May lead to our missing what’s actually happening around us.  One study noted that 75% of college students who walked across a campus quad while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle.  Researchers call this “inattentional blindness.”
  • Requires that you touch each issue dealt with multiple times.  Yet, we are at our best when we only touch an issue once. 

In the December 2013 Tuesday Reading, How Interactive Media Can Scramble Your Brain, I noted some of Professor Clifford Nass’ findings which reinforce some of the points just made:

  • Multi-tasking results in not paying attention.  E.g., consider your ability to track both what’s going on in the picture on your television screen and read the text crawling across the bottom of the screen.
  • Multitaskers have difficulty identifying what’s important, and are generally unable to ignore the unimportant.
  • Multitaskers are less able to write coherently.
  • New media addicts are poor at reading people. 

And, you are likely not to be very good at multitasking.  If you think you are great at multitasking, research suggests that you are probably not, perhaps even among the worst.
Overall, the evidence is clear.  Multitasking is not very helpful and is generally bad for you.  So, I want to challenge myself, and you, to stop our incessant multitasking so that we can do better work.  Won’t you take the challenge with me? 
Professor Earl Miller (here), suggests what we might do to reduce our multi-tasking:  “Start by blocking out a period of time to focus.  Eliminate as many distractions as possible:  Put away your phone, turn off extra computer screens, shut down your email if you have to.  Don’t try to mono-task by willpower alone;  it’s too hard to fight the thirst for new information.  Instead, prevent the urge by removing temptation.  If you find yourself unable to concentrate, try taking a short break and move around.  Increasing blood flow to your brain can help restore focus.”
Make it a great week.  .  .  .    jim
P.S.  And, no multi-tasking in your meetings.  It disrupts your ability to focus AND the ability of everyone else in the meeting.
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Cynthia Kubu and Andre Machado, Why Multitasking Is Bad for You,, April 2017.
Ryan O’Hare, Why Multitasking Is BAD for Your Brain, Daily Mail Online, February 2017. 
Earl Miller, Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Multitask,, 2017.
Lisa Quast, Want To Be More Productive?  Stop, February 2017.
D. Smith, Multitasking Undermines Our Efficiency, Study Suggests, American Psychological Association, October 2001, Volume 32, No. 9. 
Amanda MacMillan, 12 Surprising Reasons Multitasking Doesn’t
James O’Toole, How Interactive Media Can Scramble Your Brain, strategy+business, September, 2013.
Clifford Nass, Are You Multitasking Your Life Away, TEDxStanford, June 2013.