Q&A: Dropping the Ball

Does multi-tasking actually make us less productive?

By Kathryn Tyler Jul 1, 2013
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English actress Helena Bonham Carter once said, "Multi-tasking? I can't even do two things at once. I can't even do one thing at once." She may have been joking, but she was closer to the truth than she realized.

Cutting-edge research published in January by University of Utah psychology professor David L. Strayer and his co-authors has revealed that few people can multi-task well. The study, Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking, tested 310 college students on two simultaneous tasks: memorization and math computation. Participants also evaluated their multi-tasking abilities. The results? Seventy percent of participants said they were above average at multi-tasking, a statistical impossibility. Notably, the 25 percent of participants who rated themselves the least likely to multi-task were the best multi-taskers.

Below, Strayer shares his insights.

What is multi-tasking?

Multi-tasking is trying to do two separate tasks at the same time, such as reading and listening to music or driving and talking on a cellphone. People multi-task to alleviate boredom or gain stimulation. Sensation-seeking individuals are drawn to multi-tasking.

Why do people do it?

Multi-tasking is deceptive and alluring because it seems as if you can get more done in the same amount of time. But trying to juggle more than one thing at the same time, say Task A and Task B, results in the quality of both of those products being diminished, and it takes longer to complete Task A and B concurrently than it would have taken if you had done Task A and then Task B consecutively.

What is the risk of multi-tasking?

In the workplace, sometimes you may multi-task out of necessity, but usually the quality of the work suffers. Multi-tasking—or too much switching between tasks—exacts a cost.

Most of the time when people multi-task, they are not moving the business agenda ahead; they are updating their Facebook pages or checking baseball scores. It is not relevant to the company's bottom line. When people put away their phones—the source of a lot of multi-tasking behavior—studies show a huge increase in creativity scores.

Often, multi-tasking results in missing a step in a sequence or forgetting something. For instance, if you interrupt a nurse who is programming an infusion pump and she forgets where she is in the sequence, she may deliver the wrong amount of medication to a patient. There are life-threatening consequences that can result from dropping balls midstream.

Is multi-tasking ever a good thing?

Multi-tasking that involves a face-to-face interaction can be healthy and, often, more productive. Interacting with other people can result in interesting insights or approaching problems from a fresh perspective. For instance, if a colleague stops at your desk to talk, that can be beneficial to business results in the long run.

What happens physically to people who multi-task?

When we look at brain-imaging studies of people who multi-task, their frontal lobes require a lot of additional blood flow. That explains why you feel "brain-dead" when you have been slogging it out. Your brain is depleted. The brain is like a muscle; if you are using it a lot, it is going to feel fatigued. If you do heavy multi-tasking, you need to do something to rest and replenish, such as go for a hike, sleep or meditate.

How can HR professionals discourage employees from multi-tasking?

Since most multi-tasking has to do with technology, have some guidelines and policies in place regarding acceptable and unacceptable online behaviors. For instance, personal e-mail, Facebook, texting, social media, Internet surfing and other nonprofessional activities should be done on personal time. Discuss this with employees. Don't go Draconian and lock down some Internet capabilities, though, or you risk fostering animosity about Big Brother.

Should employers turn off music at work?

It depends. In some settings, such as hair salons or restaurants, background music is useful. But in an office where people are trying to carry on conversations or write, for example, if there is a lot of speech in the audio, music can be a real distraction.

Who are the best multi-taskers?

Good multi-taskers, if they exist, are quite rare—2 percent of the population, at best. We are studying these supertaskers, people like fighter pilots, court reporters and waitresses who don't write down the orders for 10 people and still don't mess them up. But these people are the exceptions. For the 98 percent of us who try to do two things at once rather than one, we compromise quality. People tend to overrate their abilities to multi-task the same way they think they are smarter or more attractive than they are.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer based in Wixom, Mich.

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