Do you multitask? Do you pride yourself on being good at it? Do you work in an environment where multitasking is encouraged? Let's look at multitasking _ what it is, whether it works, what's going on in your brain when you multitask, and what it all means for you and your work.
What is multitasking? The term "multitasking" comes from computing, where it's used to describe the simultaneous execution of more than one programme or task by a single processor. This idea was extended to human work, where it means the handling of more than one task at the same time by a person.
For example, you might be working on an important presentation while checking e-mail, chatting on Facebook, answering phone calls, watching the stock market, speaking with passing colleagues, and drinking a cup of coffee. Many executives view busy, tech-savvy multitasking employees as examples of high effectiveness and productivity. But is being busy the same as being effective? Are multitaskers more productive?
Does multitasking work? Here's an experiment that you and two others can perform to see the effects of multitasking. In it you have to do only two tasks, and quite simple ones at that _ counting and memorising.
- Play catch with one person, using a ball (or any small object). Count the number of times you catch the ball that is passed to you.
- While you're doing that, have the other person repeatedly tell you her phone number or any other 10-14 digit number you don't already know. Memorise this number.
If you're like most people, although you're actively multitasking, you will fail at one or both tasks, and may even drop the object. On the other hand, if you first do one task, then the other, you'll find it easy to do both. The lesson is that when you multitask, you're likely to do worse at all of the tasks.
Why doesn't multitasking work? John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, wrote, "To put it bluntly, research shows that we can't multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously."
In order to multitask smoothly and effectively, the human brain would need to be able to effortlessly switch between different tasks. Cognitive scientists have discovered the human brain instead thinks and works sequentially. This is because of the limits of our short-term memories. This short-term memory can only hold five to nine elements (words, digits, images, etc), and this prevents us from processing multiple information-rich inputs in parallel.
Whenever we switch between tasks, we do something like this:
- You focus on a task, like creating a presentation for a client, activate the parts of your brain needed to process it, and begin working on it.
- Then something interrupts you, like an e-mail from a colleague asking when a meeting starts.
- You think about the interruption and how to react to it.
- You decide to attend to the new stimulus right away.
- You activate the parts of your brain that do e-mail processing, write a brief response, and send it.
- You refocus your attention on your presentation, spending some time figuring out where you where and what you were thinking.
- Just as you're ready to continue, you get an SMS from a friend asking you to lunch.
- This pattern of focus-interruption-refocus repeats.
Every time we shift from one task to another, our brain must perform three or four steps before it can continue. Switching between tasks derails our thinking and costs time and energy.
And the bad news for multitasking enthusiasts just gets worse. Medina summarised a research study investigating the effect of interruptions on productivity: "Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50% more errors." Do you still believe in the effectiveness of multitasking?
What does demystifying multitasking mean for you? Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn't work. It makes you less productive, and prone to more errors. Here are some tips to avoid the practice:
- Stop multitasking. Explain to your colleagues and subordinates why they should stop too.
- When you plan your day, separate your work between minor tasks such as e-mail, and what I call focus tasks. A focus task is an important activity that requires uninterrupted, focused attention and thought, which leads to a tangible output or result. For example, researching and writing this article is my focus task today.
- Have only one or two focus tasks each day. Schedule the day's focus task for your most productive work times, whenever those are for you.
- When working on a focus task, isolate yourself from distractions. Turn off your e-mail, Facebook, phone, and TV. Close your office door. Attend intently and exclusively to your focus task. Short breaks from time to time are fine, but when you return to your focus task, be sure to give it your full attention until it's done.
- Schedule your non-focus tasks for your less productive times.
- Group related non-focus tasks together. You might first make all your phone calls, then answer e-mails, then do administrative work such as filing documents. Throughout the day, always focus on one activity or task at a time. Avoid switching between different types of activities.
- At the end of your day, look at the tangible outputs that you've produced: Did you complete your focus task _ and produce high-quality output? Did you complete enough of your minor tasks? How satisfied are you with your productivity today? Did your focused working help you progress toward your goals?
Detlef Reis is the Founding Director and Chief Ideator of Thinkergy Limited (www.Thinkergy.com), the Ideation and Innovation Company in Asia. He is also a University Lecturer for Business Creativity and Innovation Leadership at the College of Management, Mahidol University (www.cmmu.mahidol.ac.th). He can be reached at email@example.com
About the author
- Writer: Detlef Reis
Position: founding director of Thinkergy Limited