Conventional wisdom (and not a little psychological research) says that multitasking ruins our productivity. Since email lures us into multitasking with its addictive intermittent reinforcement schedule, it must therefore destroy our ability to get work done. Or does it?
Researchers Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson, and Marshall Van Alstyne found in their five-year study of executive recruiters that the relationship between email, multitasking, and productivity isn’t quite so simple. They discovered that an optimal level of multitasking — not too much or too little — combined with effective use of email and other asynchronous tech tools led to the highest productivity, as measured by recruiter compensation and revenue earned.
Multitasking, when defined as working on multiple projects over weeks and months, led to greater productivity up to a point beyond which more projects led to decreasing productivity. The most productive recruiters didn’t finish more work by doing individual projects faster, but rather by taking on more projects at once. Those who multitasked productively did so by deploying asynchronous tools like email rather than synchronous ones like the telephone.
Work on more than one project at once. Brynjolffson calls this “multitasking at the level of a month, not a minute.” In their research on executive recruiters, they found that four to six projects seemed optimal. Whether that’s the right number of projects for you will depend on the industry you work in and your own personal and professional situation. Too few projects and your work will stagnate and stall with the inevitable lulls that happen in individual projects. Too many projects and you’ll be frazzled and fried with demands on your attention. Find the right number of projects and you can interleave tasks efficiently over the course of a day.
Use asynchronous technology to multitask productively. The key finding of the study with respect to how technology boosts productivity was that it doesn’t increase the speed of project completion but rather allows more projects to be pursued simultaneously. This requires using technology that fills in the gaps you have available; that means asynchronous rather than synchronous tools. When two projects are awaiting response from other people, if you have a third project going, you can send an email or query a database for information someone else created before. You don’t have to wait for your busy schedule to align with someone else’s.
Bunch your work. The effective multitaskers didn’t check email every time a new message came in, but rather batch processed at certain times during the day, for example in the morning, mid-day, and evening.
Use short messages and quick queries in email. Long rambling dissertations and diatribes require too much thought on the part of the receiver; they don’t encourage action or quick response. Brynjolffson says the most highly productive recruiters sent short, snappy messages and received short, snappy responses in return.
Optimize your network of email contacts. The researchers found that one of the biggest predictors of productivity was being able to tap into an email social network rich with information flows. This is not just a matter of creating as many relationships as possible — because if you’re only interacting with people who interact with each other, you’ve merely found more redundant information. Instead, try to position yourself between people from different social clusters and look for diversity in your contacts.