Multitasking Comes to a Screeching Halt

About a year ago, I was driving my son and I home from a scout meeting.  We turned through an intersection and proceeded a few hundred yards forward I looked down to change the radio station.  At the same time, the car in front of me decided suddenly that they wanted to turn right into a parking lot and hit their brakes.  Lots of noise later, they have a beat up rear-end and my car is totaled.  Thankfully, no one was hurt.

A Do Everything World

Our world of multi-taskingWe all do it.  Folding laundry and watching TV.  Driving and changing the radio station.  Working on the laptop while talking to a co-worker on the phone.  Sitting in a meeting and sending an email.  Trying to do more than one thing at the same time because we don’t think there are enough hours in the day.  It’s called Multitasking and it is the biggest time waster of all!

“Wait”, you might say, “multitasking is a critical part of functioning in work and life today!  How can you say that it is a time waster?”

Because it is.

Your Bad Multitasking Self

The idea is that if we are multitasking then we are working on multiple things at the same time, juggling everything and keeping things going.  But that’s not what happens.  In most cases what happens is it simply means that you are doing multiple things badly.

It doesn’t help that multitasking is encourage by many employers today.  First, many companies advertise jobs where they specifically state in the job requirements that they want someone who can effectively multitask.  I guess my question is, how exactly do they measure that?  Secondly, with layoffs and streamlining, employers tell the survivors they must learn to do more with less, which unfortunately includes less staff.  But not less work.  While they don’t explicitly say it, they expect you to pick up all the slack and still do it within the same time frames.  So your choices at either to put in twice as much time or “multitask”.

The Case Against Multitasking

There are many reasons why multitasking simply doesn’t work.  The reasons run from the logical and practical to the medical and psychological.  We’ll cover just a few.

task switchingFirst, understand that what you are doing is not actually multitasking.  It is actually just task-switching.  What it reminds me of is Microsoft Windows operating system on computers.  Early versions of Windows offered a way to jump between tasks.  You could still only run one thing at a time, but you could jump between applications.  That was called task-switching.  It wasn’t until later versions where Windows would allow you to actually run multiple applications at the same time.  What we do when we allegedly multitask is the first one – we are simply task-switching.  Problem is, we aren’t a computer with an operating system designed to do that, so we have a lot more trouble than Windows did jumping from one task to another.  And that’s saying something.

Other reasons:

  • Multitasking does not increase productivity, it decreases it.  There is research to suggest that multitasking actually reduces productivity by as much as 40%.
  • Studies show that task-switching rapidly actually increases the time it takes to complete a task.
  • Task-switching slows you down because you have to re-align yourself each time you jump to the next task.  That means reaction times are slower, so if you are performing any task that requires quick reaction and reflex your performance suffers greatly.
  • Evidence shows more mistakes are made when multitasking instead of focused work.
  • Multitasking is stressful.  When multi-tasking in a fast-paced environment, your heart rate increases and stays higher longer than normal.  There is also emotional stress caused by the fallout of mistakes and failure while multitasking.
  • We are designed to focus on one thing at a time.  Again, lots of research to support this.  Health Magazine cites a 2013 University of Utah study that found the better you thought you were at multitasking, the worse you actually were.

In summary, you suck at multitasking.  And so do I and so does everyone else.

So, if you were doing something else while you were reading this, stop it until you finish.

Now leave your comments and thoughts.

Okay, now you’re done.  Go back to that other thing.