Multitasking: Are You Working Hard or Hardly Working?

by Terri Williams on July 17, 2013
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Multitasking is often praised as a way to be super productive, but the term “multitasking” may actually be a misnomer. When was it universally decided and accepted that we could be adept, even efficient, at juggling various tasks?

If you’ve ever watched a juggler perform, you’ve probably noticed several things: First, the juggler is merely manipulating objects in the air for entertainment purposes. Second, the juggler only performs these tricks for a short period of time before stopping and starting over again. Third, the juggler isn’t making any progress, but rather keeping the same balls, knives, or flaming torches from falling to the ground repeatedly.

Similarly, when you multitask — or juggle projects — you may feel like you’re making substantial progress, but often you’re wasting time by stopping and starting again.

“We have not found people who are successful at multitasking,” notes Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University who’s studied the effects of multitasking, in an interview with National Public Radio. “There’s a very, very, very, very small group of people who can do two tasks at one time, but there’s actually no evidence that anyone can do even three.”

The Negative Effects of Multitasking

People who are chronic multitaskers lose the ability to filter out irrelevant material and focus when needed. They end up being distracted frequently. According to Nass, these people say they can tune out everything else and concentrate when they have to; however, the tests that he and his fellow researchers at Stanford have conducted reveal that chronic multitaskers develop mental habits that prevent them from being able to focus on a single task.

Multitaskers are also unable to recognize that they’re terrible at juggling multiple projects. Although they’re extremely confident in their abilities, they suffer from an “illusion of competence,” Nass says.

A 2010 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that juggling tasks decreases performance, lengthens the duration of projects, and creates backlogs. When researchers in Italy analyzed the caseloads and completion rates of court judges, they found that those who had a higher number of cases had a lower completion rate per quarter and also spent more time on each case than the judges with a lower number of cases.

And strategic adviser Peter Bregman, in a post for the HBR Blog Network, recounts one of his own multitasking “fails.” During a conference call with the executive committee of a nonprofit board, he decided to email a client. But he forgot the attachment, so he had to send a second email. Bregman then realized he’d set the wrong attachment and had to send a third email apologizing for the mistake. When he finally turned his attention back to the conference call, the chair of the board was waiting for Bregman to answer a question that he didn’t hear because he was sending email.

Is Multitasking Illegal?

Multitasking and being distracted may be an ethical — and even a legal — problem, according to F. Daniel Siciliano, faculty director at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance, and Katharine Martin, a corporate partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. The two spoke at the May 2011 meeting of the Markkula Center’s Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership.

During their presentation, Martin stated that a corporate board member who sends email or text messages while a meeting is in session could be held liable for damages if the board reaches a questionable decision. The board member’s inattentiveness during the meeting could be interpreted as bad faith and a breach of duties.

When Multitasking Works

Multitasking only works when it meets two criteria, asserts Jim Taylor, an adjunct performance psychology professor at the University of San Francisco. In a Psychology Today article, Taylor says one of the tasks must be so automatic that it requires no focus, such as walking or eating, and the tasks must be processed by different parts of the brain. So it is possible to read and listen to classical music, since reading and processing instrumental sounds use different parts of the brain. But if the music has lyrics, the same language center of the brain used for reading is needed to process the words to the songs.

Taylor says this is why you can’t read email, talk on the phone, send instant messages, and watch videos at the same time. Those who do are “serial tasking,” which means that instead of performing these functions simultaneously, they’re actually shifting from one activity to another, which wastes time and energy.

Terri Williams is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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