Multitasking or Multifailing?
March 2019 Issue
Multitasking is more like multifailing. If you are someone who is proud of how quickly you can switch between texting, Facebook, emails, fabrication forms, writing notes, and phone calls, you may need to pause and reconsider. Some jobs promote this type of split attention and rapid task shifting. But rather than being beneficial, research is showing that multitasking decreases efficiency, effectively lowers IQ during the tasks, and makes you less effective at prioritizing goals.
To provide a framework to understand the research about multitasking, this article outlines several models of attention theory. The capacity theory of attention includes the premise that an individual has a finite amount of attention and ability for mental exercises. Because attention is finite, it can only be split between a finite number of tasks. Thus, when engaging in one or more tasks that exceed X capacity, performance quality of one or more of those tasks will decline. The bottleneck theory of attention states that when one or more tasks are being done simultaneously, one task will always be prioritized, so the actions on the neglected task will be postponed. The idea is that multiple tasks leads to processing interference. So, you can either run out of attention and mental energy, or you convince yourself you are multitasking while you are actually doing one task more than the other. Both options sound ineffective, don't they?1
Research conducted at Stanford University showed that those who are heavy multitaskers, defined as people who feel multitasking boosts their performance and engage in it regularly, are in fact worse than those who focus on a single task at a time. Heavy multitaskers had problems identifying relevant information, switching between tasks, and organizing thoughts.2 Research from the University of London demonstrated that those who multitasked had IQ score declines that were akin to staying up all night. In fact, IQ dropped as much as 15 points in some multitasking men, putting them at the functional level of an eight-year-old.3
Another fascinating discovery was that simply sitting near someone who is multitasking will reduce your own comprehension by 17 percent. This is due to the distraction of what is going on in someone else's workspace and screen as they constantly switch tasks.4
Researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London also conducted brain scans of frequent multitaskers. "Individuals who had reported higher amounts of media multitasking had smaller gray matter density in the angular cingulate cortex."5 The angular cingulate cortex is associated with processing pathways including those related to "higher cognitive and emotional/motivational processes."
Additional studies have demonstrated that while multitasking, it takes the brain about four times longer to recognize new information and decreases the ability to retain it.6 The possible exception to this multitasking principle is doing some kind of physical activity while also doing a mental task.7 This needs to be a physical activity that you have done many times, (for example, walking). However, have you ever casted a patient with a challenging knee, foot, and ankle position and attempted to maintain a thoughtful conversation? It is not easy at all: I've found that I end up prioritizing the casting (bottleneck theory) and my conversation becomes increasingly short.7 Other studies have demonstrated that the combination of mental and physical activities is still challenging. One such study showed that people talking on their phones were much less likely to remember or notice a clown riding a unicycle, and overall had poor recall of what was going on around them.7
Needless to say, there is a solid body of evidence that multitasking does not help productivity or accomplishment of your goals. It seems that the world has been pushed into a constant state of distraction: busy phones, coworkers at your desk, intercom pages, email and text notifications, and a buzzing Fitbit all divert our attention. Depending on your position, it can be difficult to set aside time to be focused and accomplish particular tasks. However, there are still plenty of moves you can make to keep your productivity high and stay focused.7
Live the 80/20 Life
If multitasking is wreaking havoc on your productivity, it stands to reason that to produce better results, you should do less (but better). If you choose to react to the information and notifications that appear on your schedule, you will constantly be along for the ride, instead of controlling the waters. The Pareto principle states that about 80 percent of the effects are the result of 20 percent of the causes. Think about the last day you had at work: Which of the tasks and activities that you engaged in were actually productive? What tasks were a waste of time? Try to focus on the 20 percent of tasks that create 80 percent of your results and pursue those relentlessly. It may be helpful to start by tracking how much time you spend on particular tasks each day for a week to figure out where time is being wasted. You can also opt to choose the most important tasks for each day and focus on accomplishing those in a set amount of time.8
Make Conscious Choices
While each job comes with its own list of defined tasks and rules, there are still opportunities to consciously choose how to spend your time. You can make an effort to devote yourself fully to the task in front of you, and intentionally shift between tasks at a slower rate. You can choose to focus on your high-impact tasks and activities first, and then let the less important tasks follow. There are few tasks that are actually emergencies, so don't let someone else convince you to turn your day upside down for them on a regular basis. Saying no doesn't make you a bad person, but simply a more effective one at the tasks you have committed to.8
The best days I have at work are when I stick to the tasks that I assign myself for each block of time. For example, I might block out my schedule as one hour of time for model rectification, 30 minutes for returning phone calls, 30 minutes for responding to emails, with the remainder of the day allotted to seeing patients. Patient care is more unpredictable and can regularly spill over to other responsibilities, but doing your best to complete assigned tasks in a set amount of time will relieve you of stress. Assigning time for a particular task tells your brain not to think about it until it is time to do so. Not having a plan for when to accomplish it can create stress, as your brain must always think about how to finish it successfully. Much like an assembly line, try to group your tasks together and finish similar items together. Perhaps you check emails at 8 a.m. and 12 p.m., and once before you leave, instead of diverting attention every time you get a new one.
While company culture may push to get as much done in as little time as possible, so that every minute of our time is accounted for, it is still helpful to have some free time in your day. Even a half-hour window to let your brain take a break can help you be more effective when you return to work. As a clinician, a half hour per day is not often feasible, so I attempt to take a lap or two around the office and not think about the task at hand. This allows me to get my body moving and get a mental break.
Other than the joy of having time to yourself and away from work, vacation gives you a chance to choose intentionally how to spend your time. Being online can sometimes encourage multitasking: There is the entire world at your fingertips, and it's easy to get distracted. You can find joy in focusing deeply on something for several hours, and vacation gives you a chance to do that.
I hope I've convinced you to stop watching TV while you read this article, or to not let yourself be pulled in non-productive directions at work. You can choose to control your work, or it will certainly control you. It may be tempting to switch between many tasks to keep up the false feeling of productivity. But slowing down and measuring your time can help clarify what is holding you back from accomplishing more. Cheers to focusing on one task at a time.
Nina Bondre, CPO, practices at Dankmeyer Prosthetics & Orthotics in Linthicum, Maryland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Kahneman, D. 1973. Attention and Effort. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.
2. Gorlick, A. 2009. "Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows." Stanford Report August 24, 2009.
3. Bradberry, T. 2014. "Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Career, New Studies Suggest." Forbes October 8, 2014.
4. James, G. 2018. "Sitting Near a Multitasker Decreases Your Intelligence by 17 Percent." Inc. August 24, 2018.
5. Loh, K. K., and R. Kanai. 2014. Higher Media Multi-Tasking Activity is Associated with Smaller Gray Matter Density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. PLOS One 9 (9).
6. Mautz, Scott. 2017. "Psychology and Neuroscience Blow-Up the Myth of Effective Multitasking." Inc. May 11, 2017. https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/psychology-and-neuroscience-blow-up-the-myth-of-effective-multitasking.html
7. Weinschenk, S. 2012. "The true cost of multi-tasking." Psychology Today September 18, 2012.
8. Oppong, T. 2018. "To get better results, do less but do it better." Thrive Global June 28, 2018.