The ability to juggle multiple tasks, seamlessly switching from A to B to C and back again, is a highly sought-after skill in today’s labor market. Employers want to know their workers can multitask like champs, while entrepreneurs … well, if you’ve ever tried to keep all those balls in the air, you know multitasking is just the way of life for a startup. Have you ever asked yourself, however, if you are actually getting more accomplished?
Multitasking has the potential to make us feel super busy without actually increasing our output. As MIT researcher Earl Miller explained recently to The Guardian, “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 in doing so.”
Not convinced that doing more might actually result in getting less done? Here are three ways multitasking is actually killing your productivity.
Multitasking Hurts Your Ability to Switch From One Task to Another
It’s a fact of life in the 21st century: We’re constantly bombarded by different streams of messaging, from email to text messages to radio/TV advertising to social media and more. As publishing has become democratized, we are constantly bombarded with messages as advertisers compete for our attention.
In a 2009 study, Stanford researchers found that even the process of attempting to juggle multiple electronic tasks (answering an email while browsing text messages and listening on a conference call, for example) impairs our cognitive control. Furthermore, they found that when we’re trying to manage multiple tasks, our ability to recall information decreases.
We’re more easily distracted. We can’t switch gears as easily as people who don’t multitask. So clearly there’s something to be said for shutting off those notifications and being a little less available!
Set aside time to deal with your email, perhaps three times a day: as soon as you get to work, after lunch and before the end of the day. Check Facebook in the morning and at night. Set aside 10 minute increments to check in with your other networks and browse your favorite sites.
Multitaskers Use Their Brain Less Effectively
When you’re focusing on two tasks at a time, your brain can’t dedicate resources proportionately to each task. What actually ends up happening is that one side of the brain goes to work on one task, while the other tackles the second task.
In a 2010 study by French research agency INSERM, we learned the human brain simply can’t handle any more than two complex tasks at once, and even then, the brain divides and conquers. When researchers asked study participants to tackle a third task, one of the three tasks was inevitably forgotten.
How can juggling multiple tasks put us further ahead if our limited brain power can’t be put to work on each one? You get further ahead by allocating all of your resources to each task one at a time. This ensures that you dedicate all available time and brain capacity to really give the task in question your best shot.
Multitasking Actually Rewards Decreased Productivity
Our brains sure work in mysterious ways. Now, one might think that if you’re feeling scattered and pulled in all directions and lacking focus, you should just practice multitasking, so you can get better at it. Maybe you’re just not doing it correctly. Right?
Wrong. Multitasking increases your body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as adrenaline, which is what gives you that fight-or-flight urge. Additionally, UK researchers recently found that “multitasking stress elicited increases in heart rate and blood pressure.”
Daniel J. Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at Montreal’s McGill University, explains the impact these physiological responses to multitasking have on our productivity: “Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new—the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies and kittens.”
Puppies and kittens, my friends. I think we’ve just solved the internet’s fascination with animal videos.
But what to do about the modern emphasis on multitasking? It may be time for employers to decide which is more important: the appearance of productivity masked as a lot of jobs done badly in a short period of time; or real productivity, created through one or two jobs done well in the same period of time. In other words, true productivity, or puppies and kittens? You decide.