A whole generation of web workers has been raised on the idea that the more activities you can do at one time, the more of a productivity superstar you are. But is the ability to juggle Facebooking a friend; scanning an email; texting on your cell […]

MultitaskingA whole generation of web workers has been raised on the idea that the more activities you can do at one time, the more of a productivity superstar you are. But is the ability to juggle Facebooking a friend; scanning an email; texting on your cell phone and tweeting about your latest technology tip — all at the same time — really such a good idea?

According to a recent study published in the August 24 edition of “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” by Stanford researchers Clifford Nass, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, the answer is an unqualified “no.”

Nass said the idea for the study came about because he would see students who seemed to be amazingly skillful at multitasking and wanted to learn what their secret was.

Nass and his colleagues began their research by locating a group of 100 students composed of both “high multitaskers” and “low multitaskers.” The high mutitaskers were those who routinely used four, five or more media at one time (texting, reading email, chatting on the phone etc.). The low multitaskers used, on average, no more than two media at one time. The goal of the study was to see which elements of multitasking the high multitasking group performed better at, when compared with the low multitasking group.

“We were shocked to find out that the high multitaskers did worse than the low multitaskers in all three basic aspects of successful multitasking,” says Nass. The three aspects the study examined were:

  • The ability to focus on the relevant and ignore the irrelevant. In order to multitask well, you need to be able to very quickly decide between what’s important and what you are going to pay attention to, and what’s irrelevant. “High multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy,” says Nass. “Everything distracts them.”
  • The ability to keep information well organized in the brain. If you think of the brain as a bunch of filing cabinets, the high multitaskers had messier cabinets than their lower multitasking counterparts, and had a harder time finding what they needed.
  • Being able to switch from one task to another. Good multitaskers need to be able to mentally go from one activity to the next, without significant cognitive downtime. The more the high multitaskers were required to do this, the worse they were at it.

The results of the study have lead Nass and his colleagues to conclude that one of two things is true. Either multitasking is harmful to high multitaskers’ brains and is worsening their ability to focus, or people who are high multitaksers are naturally bad at these things. “Either way,” says Nass, “multitasking is a problem, and people should not be deluded into thinking that it works. It hurts productivity, and it may be hurting your thinking process,” he says.

If all of this is not enough to make you stop and do one thing at a time, consider the fact that the Stanford study is not the first of its kind to point out that multitasking makes us stupid. One report from the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that when workers are constantly juggling emails, phone calls and text messages, their IQ falls ten points. Another recent report by Rubinstein, Meyer and Evans found that when people switched back and forth between tasks, there was a substantial loss of efficiency and accuracy — in some cases, up to 50 percent.

Now are you convinced to put down the iPhone while you peruse the Internet? If so, to fight distraction and find your focus, here are a few hints excerpted from “Time Management In An Instant: 60 Ways to Make the Most of Your Day“:

  • Create designated task times. By setting aside a selected time period to do all your phone calls, emails or errands at once, you will reduce the amount of time you spend going back and forth between them.
  • Put a system in place that lets you capture all incoming to-dos in writing. Instead of feeling pressure to do the item “now” (lest you forget), your brain can relax, secure in the knowledge that you have the item identified and stored.
  • Maintain a desktop inbox. Don’t just rely on your electronic mail box or filing system. By putting a physical inbox on your desk, you will be able to temporarily place items that need your attention in a location where you can easily find them.
  • Turn off technology. The ding of an email coming in, the buzz of the BlackBerry etc. — all these seemingly harmless inputs can tempt you to stray from the job at hand and multitask.

Are you a high multitasker or a low multitasker? How do you think it affects your productivity?

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By Karen Leland

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  1. You address the four primary actions that I have taken to make myself more focused and productive. I designate a certain amount of time for completing tasks that are not considered “projects” so that I have motivation to complete those tasks in the designated time slot. To track items on my todo list, I use Remember the Milk along with Google Voice for recording items on the go.

    The desktop inbox applies to both my physical inbox and the workspace on my computer. By keeping notes, files, and papers relevant to upcoming tasks plainly visible, I am always mindful of them until they have been processed. Turning off technology has probably been the biggest contributor to productivity gains. Nothing is more distracting than having emails, instant messages, and tweets streaming in while you’re attempting to work.

  2. This reminds me of the ‘busyness’ syndrome – being busy is very different than being productive. For me personally, multitasking used to serve the purpose of making think I was being super-productive, but in reality, it was just making me feel busy. My attention was too divided to be really useful, and I found that it also felt more stressful. Now I pretty much do one thing at a time and I feel more in control, more on-task, and more productive.

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  5. Leanne Hoagland-Smith Thursday, November 5, 2009

    As this article suggests, the brain is not designed to function at optimal level by multi-tasking as it is designed to function sequentially. Another book, Brain Rules by Medina, explains in further detail this illusion of multi-tasking. Unfortunately, this behavior continues to be broadcast as normal and if you cannot multi-taks you are abnormal. Agree with Lucy about how people confuse motion with progress and activity with results. Return to the old check list, do one thing at a time; learn to separate must do from should do; take a break to re-energize your brain and body.

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  7. Could this not be the cause and effect being muddled? If people are distracted by everything, then they are more likely to have everything open at once, making them appear to be mutitaskers.

    They will probably then justify this by creating a self-belief that they are good at multitasking and capable of juggling several things at once.

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  9. Armen Shirvanian Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    Hi Karen.

    Every time I multi-task, I feel cool for a few minutes and then later realize I shouldn’t have multi-tasked. In that way it is like eating candy or any other bad habit. It’s fun to tell people you are multi-tasking, but actually doing it is pretty useless. Someone watching a multi-tasker can easily see that they are getting much less done, but are in somewhat of a trance-like state.

    This is not to say that we can’t do multiple things in sequence, in organized durations of time(as short as required), but haphazardly packing 4 tasks into a 1-hour period and hoping they all come out finished at the end of the hour is about as likely as the word “asdfghjkl” getting added to the dictionary.

    Your point about how everything distracts a multi-tasker is duly noted.

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