Can we finally bury the myth that humans can multitask?
William Goodman, VP of Programs (5/24/2018)
Written into every job description, or expectation for project management, is the need to multitask. Some of us even boast about being good at multitasking. We are continuously emailing, texting, and doubling our workload to get through the day. Yet, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. Studies are showing that we are actually less productive when we multitask.
Research conducted at Stanford University reveals those who multitask are actually LESS productive than their sequential counterparts. “Heavy multitaskers—those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance—were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time.1” When compared to sequencing, multitaskers have difficulty with organizing thoughts and filtering relevant information1. Their work is less productive and lower-quality. How can this be?
It turns out our brains are not wired for parallel processing. When a task is undertaken, a network of brain cells is activated2. The network collaborates to fulfill a single outcome, which may then feed into another network. However, when too many active networks interfere with each other, the information becomes severely degraded, or “washes out.” This is why our efficiency drops on both tasks when we try to multitask.
Additionally, when we shift our attention, one network “depowers” while another is built2. The amount of time needed for the cognitive network to come up to speed is coined “switching cost” (in the Project Management community). Its well known in project management circles that switching costs can rob 15 minutes of productivity every time a task is interrupted. Since multitasking does not allow cognitive networks to fully activate, it places one in a perpetual state of “switching.” As a result, productivity is permanently diminished.
Moreover, a study performed at the University of London discovered multitasking actually hinders IQ scores1. The results show an adult in multitasking mode may lose over 15 IQ points. This regression is equivalent to that of an 8-year old child!
“So the next time you’re writing your boss an email during a meeting, remember that your cognitive capacity is being diminished to the point that you might as well let an 8-year-old write it for you1”
Finally, a research performed at the University of Sussex claims multitasking causes long-term cognitive impairment1. The Sussex study expanded the definition of multitasking beyond the office, to include: cell phones, social media, and the impact of instant communications on the human brain. Their results found that multitasking reduces brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex – an area responsible for cognitive and emotional functioning1. The worrisome part is this may be permanent. That’s right, when compared to a “low tech” lifestyle, multitasking causes brain damage!
Now, this doesn’t mean we are always unproductive when we try to do two things at once. Physical and laborious productivity can be improved under certain conditions. Repetitive tasks often don’t require advanced, cognitive processing – the threshold to where multitasking is no longer effective. For example, one may go running while working-out a scheduling problem. In this, productivity increases for both tasks. The key to multitasking productively is accessing lower-level autonomous neural networks.
So what can you do to overcome the negative effects of multitasking? First, be aware of your distractions. Do you really need to be always-on? Remember, every interruption reduces your cognitive ability and productivity. Second, block out part of your day for focused work. Do not email, answer the phone, or open the door. This is your time to focus on a single task at hand. You may be surprised at how much you can get done. Third, set the expectation that multitasking is not allowed in meetings. You will find employees will become more engaged, and meeting time will shorten dramatically. And finally, get the word out that multitasking is a myth! We need to stop hiring employees on their ability to multitask. We need to set the expectation that focused-engagement is better than “multitasking.”
Deadline for submission is the first day of the month. Submissions will be evaluated by the Board for inclusion on a space-available basis.