Advertising
Advertising

We’ve Been Wrong About Multitasking All Along

We’ve Been Wrong About Multitasking All Along

Picture this scene: It’s 30 minutes into my workday and I’ve already ticked three things off my To Do list. I’ve got something done about finances, finalized a networking meeting, polished a pitch, and am ready to do some serious writing. Then all of a sudden, my internet connection is down. Whoa! How can anyone get anything done without the internet? After some minutes of panic and ranting, I begin to do what I can, offline. And then, eventually, the internet’s absence reveals some beliefs I had wrong about multitasking because—surprise!—work flows smoothly until the end of a most productive day, despite my not being able to check and respond to messages or quickly research points.

While the ability to work on simultaneous tasks has its merits, knowing where we got it wrong about multitasking gives us control over the work process. Here are 10 things we’ve had wrong about multitasking:

1. It’s not really multitasking.

Multitasking is actually switching between tasks. Studies by psychologist René Marois at Vanderbilt University revealed that when humans attempt to do two tasks at once, execution of the first task leads to a delay in the second task because a bottleneck occurs in the brain’s information processing area. Simply put, the brain cannot effectively do two things at once.

Advertising

2. Not all work can be done with multitasking.

Multitasking can only be done when one task is automatic, such as showering or walking. In The Multitasking Mind, authors Dario Salvucci and Niels Taatgen cite reading while mixing a bowl of ingredients and pulling weeds in the garden while listening to the radio as examples of effortless multitasking. Difficulties come up when tasks involve the same brain processing or body part, such as typing and using a mouse (both require the right hand) or driving and scanning a navigation device (both require vision). The most intense conflict is multitasking in the head, where cognitive and linguistic brain processes create interference, such as reading while having a conversation.

3. Not everyone can multitask.

Some people are better at multitasking than others, but they are not necessarily those who multitask a lot. “In fact, the more likely they are to do it, the more likely they are to be bad at it.” This is what Dr. David Sanbonmatsu and Dr. David Strayer, psychology professors at the University of Utah, found in a research study. The study suggests that  people multitask not because they have the ability, but “because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task.”

4. Multitasking does not save time.

Time-saving is another major thing I got wrong about multitasking. Switching from one task to another or doing two or more tasks in rapid succession uses up seconds. Dr. Joshua Rubinstein, Dr. Jeffrey Evans and Dr. David Meyer conducted experiments in which young adults switched between tasks like solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. They found that multitasking actually takes as much as 40% of productive time.

Advertising

5. Multitasking is not efficient.

The study of Rubinstein, Evans, and Meyer additionally showed that multitasking involves more errors that occur from cognitive load in the brain. The brain needs to not only adjust to the second task but also to remember where it stopped in the original task. If counting is interrupted by a second task, you need to reorient and remember where you stopped counting in order to proceed with an accurate count. Errors also occur with activities that involve critical thinking.

6. Multitasking can be dangerous.

Air traffic controllers work with heightened stress levels caused by the strenuous effort required to focus on their tasks. They are aware of the dangerous consequences of one mistake. Near-fatal results can also take place in the medical field, as in the case of a 56-year-old male dementia patient. At a visit during hospital rounds, his attending physician instructed the resident to discontinue his anticoagulation medication. The hospital’s computerized provider order entry system (CPOE) allowed for this to be done in real time. The resident began to enter the order into her smartphone but received a text message from a friend about a party, which she responded to. The physician and resident then continued on their rounds. The resident didn’t complete the entry to discontinue the medication resulting in an emergency open-heart surgery, which the patient, fortunately, survived.

7. A multitasking boss sends the wrong signal.

In her book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, Carol Kinsey Goman talks about leaders’ non-verbal messages. An example of this is a boss who verbally tells her team they are important and are always welcome in her office. Yet, when a team member seeks her out, this boss answers questions while writing an email or shuffling papers and does not make eye contact. Result: the team feel they don’t even get half of this leader’s attention.

Advertising

8. Multitasking gets in the way of meetings.

You’d think with all the devices available, meetings would cover more in less time. Attendees should be able to note down their reporting topics and action items. We got that wrong about multitasking too. What usually happens is people lose track of the discussion because they are tweaking their reports or noting down action items. In a productive meeting, the attendees are also mentally present and actively engaged in the discussion. One assigned person takes down the meeting minutes for distribution later.

9. Multitasking dulls memory and the ability to organize.

What we often believe to be memory problems are actually attention problems. You cannot remember later what you do not pay attention to now. Child and adult psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Hallowell describes attention deficit trait (ADT) as a response to our hyperkinetic environment. When an individual is dealing with more inputs than they possibly can, their brain circuits get overloaded. They are unable to stay organized, set priorities, or manage time.

10. Multitasking detracts from relationships.

We justify work multitasking as a means to have more time for our relationships. Well, we got that wrong about multitasking too. As more mobile apps become available for work, chores, and errands, the role of multitasking with mobile phones has reached villainous status. No doubt you’ve experienced the frustration of having a conversation with a partner or a friend that is interrupted by text messages, emails, or actual phone calls. A study by the University of Essex showed the mere presence of a mobile phone—even when not in use—during personal conversations becomes a barrier to closeness, trust, and empathy.

Advertising

Why what we got wrong about multitasking is good news.

It’s okay not to multitask. Focusing on one task allows you to finish it sooner and begin the next task. You can also better focus on important face-to-face encounters.

When you need to multitask, you can do it well. Those who do not usually multitask make the best multitaskers, according to the Strayer and Sanbonmatsu study.

You can choose effective task pairings and devices. Have double PC monitors to facilitate research, use foot pedals when transcribing, and listen to select audiobooks while driving.

Oh, and by all means, whistle while you work!

Featured photo credit: Arthur Gebuys via flickr.com

More by this author

Improve Life Quality Now by Enjoying Your Sundays 10 Signs Your Traveling Experiences Have Made You a Better Person 8 Simple Gentlemen Gestures to impress a Lovely Lady Is What You’re Wearing Too Revealing? You Won’t Die if You Don’t Buy. Here’s Why.

Trending in Productivity

1The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It? 210 Best Time Management Books Recommended By Entrepreneurs 3What Is Procrastination (And the Complete Guide to Stop Procrastinating) 46 Simple Steps to Make Progress Towards Achieving Goals 5Secrets to Organizing Thoughts and Ideas (So You’ll Never Lose Ideas!)

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

Advertising

So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

Advertising

  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

Advertising

According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

Read Next