Is Multitasking your Default?

Written by KB Published in

Thought Leader Blog

Multitasking is great, and there’s every reason for you to encourage your employees to multitask, right? Wrong! Multitasking is, in fact, turning into one of the worst habits of most people, and this is backed up by several studies. Recent research*, however, has demonstrated that that switching from one task to the next takes a serious toll on productivity.

 • Multitaskers have more trouble tuning out distractions than people who focus on one task at a time.
 • Doing so many different things at once can actually impair cognitive ability.

A study by Zhen Wang showed that although multitasking doesn’t produce stellar results, it leads to mere emotional satisfaction because we feel (incorrectly) like we are getting more done. Another study in Stanford showed that multitasking generally results not only in poor filtering of information but also poor retention of memory. Whilst we know both intuitively and scientifically that multi tasking does not make us more productive there is an inherent challenge with ‘giving up’ multi tasking as it has now become autopilot for many of us and a hard habit to break.

Understanding how the brain operates can help us believe that, in fact, it is not scientifically possible to consciously concentrate on two things at once. Yes, we can do two things at once like drive a car and have a conversation with someone in the seat next to us because typically we have built up unconscious competence in one task (like driving) and can utilise our thinking or conscious capacity for the conversation. The minute one needs to concentrate consciously on the driving – for example, in traffic, executing a difficult park or navigating in bad weather – the conversation (in my personal experience) stops and attention and consciousness is focused on the single task at hand – safe driving. When it comes to driving, obviously the costs of getting it wrong are high and so as responsible adults many of us (by choice and regulation) are limited to multitasking whilst driving.

With this in mind, think about all the other hours in the day (when you are not driving) that – by choice and lack of regulation – multitasking is your default. Email, phone, text messaging, talking with staff: how often do you find yourself itching to read an email whilst talking with a client or colleague on the phone? The next time you find yourself multitasking when you are trying to be productive, take a quick assessment of the various things you are trying to accomplish. Be honest with yourself about whether you are really being productive or ‘shuffling paper’.
* Research article: http://lifehacker.com/5922453/what-multitasking-does-to-our-brains


As an Employee Engagement and Performance Expert, Kate Boorer works with organizations and individuals to maximize their employee engagement and motivation with a specific focus on building leadership capabilities and skills of those people managers who are responsible for managing the daily workplace experience.

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