Is multitasking damaging your productivity?

Executives believe that multitasking improves productivity, yet except for the most mindless work, it doesn’t actually help, many studies show. So, can you strike a healthy balance?

If a survey of marketing and advertising executives by The Creative Group is to be believed, multitasking is great. More than half of the 500 executives surveyed said the practice somewhat or greatly improves productivity. Only about 16 percent said it hindered it.

When Ragan Communications CEO Mark Ragan asked a panel of women in PR why that field is dominated by women, they answered that they’re better multitaskers.

But what if multitasking isn’t all that useful? Productivity experts point to research that says it may actually be detrimental to effectively getting work done. It depends on how you define the term and what types of tasks you’re performing.

The problems

Studies (such as this one) show that multitasking “hampers creativity and increases error,” says Diane Gayeski, dean and professor of strategic communications at the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca University.

“Through my 30-plus years of consulting, I’ve found that most performance problems are caused by too much information, not a lack of information or training,” she says.

Author and productivity coach Walter G. Meyer cites a study in which people were asked to pay attention to three things on a TV screen at once: two news tickers and an anchorperson.

“When quizzed about the news show they had just seen, they had much less retention and comprehension than other volunteers who watched the same stories, but reported one at a time with no ticker or sidebar,” he says.

Meyer adds that multitasking is really performing “three things, one at a time, interrupted by the other two.”

Management consultant Kathleen Brush says she’s seen it firsthand in meetings when clients are tapping away on their phones, yet insist they’re multitasking.

“When they say this, I ask them a question about the last point I made,” she says. “In 100 percent of the cases, they either got it wrong or, incredibly, asked me to repeat it. The human brain isn’t a computer with multi-processors. It only has one processor.”

The nuances

The brain actually has something akin to two processors, according to change management consultant Marianne Carlson.

“Different parts of the brain are, as you may know, responsible for different kinds of tasks,” she says. “The part of the brain responsible for concentrating on new tasks and creativity, for example, differs from the part that handles routine, memorized activities.”

Multitasking is fine if you’re using the part of the brain that deals with the activities you can do on autopilot, Carlson says, but creative work, which is done using the prefrontal cortex, requires focus.

“If you’re listening to a presentation in a meeting, it might be OK, therefore, to multitask by doing something routine, like knitting or stuffing envelopes, because those secondary tasks don’t require work in the prefrontal cortex,” she says. “But you probably shouldn’t multitask during the presentation by responding to emails or drafting proposals, as those activities are prefrontal cortex activities, as is listening to the presentation.”

Productivity consultant Clare Kumar says it’s a matter of defining what multitasking is. If you’re managing a lot of projects at once, but focusing on one thing at a time, that’s very productive, she says.

Practical advice

Laurie Gray, an attorney and founder of Socratic Parenting, offers some examples of productive multitasking, and what isn’t so productive:

“Looking through your junk email folder while you’re on hold on the telephone, deleting those that are truly junk and moving those that may not be junk into your inbox for more careful review later, is productive multitasking,” she says. “But the moment you have a client on the phone, you need to give him or her your full attention and avoid all distractions.”

Meyer suggests grouping similar tasks together. Part of the reason multitasking may not be all that effective is that it takes time to switch gears between different jobs, he says.

“If you do spend 48 minutes of an hour efficiently finishing tasks A, B, and C then it is OK to take a break, walk around the block, check Facebook, and clear your head before diving into the next task,” he says.

Kumar suggests setting aside 30- to 90-minute blocks of “focus time.”

“We are living in a constant state of always-on, high-cortisol accessibility. This, too, damages focus and productivity.”


The downside of multitasking

Diane Gayeski of Ithaca College lists some problems that can arise from trying to do too many things at once:

  • An increase in mistakes
  • Difficulty in distinguishing crucial information from “spam”
  • Confusion and apathy stemming from conflicting information
  • No time for essential activities such as long-term creative thinking or building customer relationships

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