Slow Down: Multitasking Is Bad For Productivity

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In today’s workplace, multitasking is appreciated by many as a good work habit and a sign of commitment to the job. Some people seem to be able to juggle personal crises, help co-workers and still get their work done. While they may whirl like dervishes, they seem to take it all in stride without breaking a sweat. These people are powerhouses of productivity—or does it just seem that way?

Mardi Gras Multitasking by Bart Everson, Wikimedia Commons

Former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was considered by some to be as powerful as the president during his time in office, and yet he often missed key meetings or ran late. When he did arrive, he invariably stepped out to make at least one telephone call during the meeting. In retrospect, his tenure at the State Department was one of the least productive in recent history, despite his political power and academic prowess. [1]

The Cult of Busy

Chronic multitaskers often comment about how busy they are all the time and how much they still have to do. Somehow though, come the end of the week, they seem to have just as much on their to-do lists as they did the start of the week. The cult of busy can quickly become all encompassing. It can even begin to serve as validation, since being constantly busy and keeping multiple balls in the air is what makes an employee indispensable—right?

That might be true if multitasking enhanced productivity without impacting quality; if multitasking didn’t have

“a negative physical effect, prompting the release of stress hormones and adrenaline.[That can] trigger a vicious cycle, where we work hard at multi-tasking, take longer to get things done, then feel stressed, harried and compelled to multi-task more.”[2]

Multitaskers Are Lousy at Multitasking

A 2009 study by three Stanford University researchers found that cognitive control, the ability to make decisions (known as executive function), memory, and the skill to implement a task with as few mistakes as possible, was worst for self-proclaimed multitaskers. Jim Taylor, an adjunct psychology professor at the University of San Francisco, describes the pervasive endorsement of multitasking as “a myth promulgated by the ‘technological-industrial complex’ to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient.”[3]

According to Taylor, what we think of as a fast drive down the information superhighway is really us “stepping on the gas then hitting the brakes, over and over.” And getting nowhere fast!

This effect happens because the brain unavoidably retains information about the previous task when it shifts gear into the next one; thus leaving the previous task mentally unfinished. As a result, the subsequent task is shortchanged on brain power, and the next one gets even less attention. The more we multitask, the more cumulative the brain drain. In fact, Clifford Nass, one of the authors of the Stanford study, said they found “that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that's necessary for multitasking.”

Bottom Line Impact of Multitasking

A comprehensive study of 45 organizations, with over $1 billion each in annual revenues, found that multitasking “cost the global economy more than $450 billion in lost productivity.”[4]

This massive productivity loss comes from the fact that multitaskers experience a 40% drop in productivity, take 50% longer to complete a task, and make more mistakes. University of London researchers found that chronic multitasking can also temporarily lower IQ by up to 15 points, which is three times more than the effect of frequent cannabis use. In spite of these negative impacts, it seems the addictive buzz that some people get from juggling many important tasks might have something to do with why people persistently multitask. For others, multitasking is considered a necessary evil, not a preference, and they bear the cumulative stress in silence rather than admit they are desperate for uninterrupted focus time.

Whatever we may believe about the power of multitasking, research shows that a combination of task prioritization and focus is a much better use of our time (and our brains). Focusing completely on one task at a time, rather than flipping between tasks or trying to do two or more things at once, makes us more productive, more accurate and less stressed out. 


Use TribeHR’s goals tracking and company values to help your team prioritize and focus.


Creating Performance Objectives

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One of the most challenging aspects of training is quantifying results. The reason it’s challenging stems from the fact that learning can be difficult to measure. In the workplace, however, it’s critical to measure results to determine whether required information has been absorbed and skills have been acquired—not to mention gauging whether the investment was justified. Excellence by John Fischer, Flickr To make sure they can effectively measure the impact of training, good workplace training program developers create learning objectives using a specific format that ensures results can be assessed.  Each measurable learning …

Risk Management Basics

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Cultivating an understanding of risk management fundamentals is valuable at any level of an organization: whether you’re an executive considering the broader risks your company is exposed to in a globally competitive environment, or a front line supervisor responsible for workplace safety. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Pro-Active Risk Management Ideally, risk assessment and mitigation is part of every planning process. One of the most common areas where pro-active risk management can improve outcomes is at the project level. When planning a project, risks can be categorized into two groups. Internal Project Risks: These are risks to the project …

Helping People Succeed at Work

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Self Concept by Nathalya Cubas, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 In 1960, Prentice-Hall published a book by well-known plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz. This book, Psycho-Cybernetics, went on to sell over 25 million copies worldwide[1] and is still considered one of the most influential writings about self-concept and the power of visualization in attaining goals. Maltz discovered that the majority of his patients who underwent cosmetic surgery procedures were still dissatisfied with their looks after the “problems” were corrected. He concluded that people were responding to some inner perception of how they look, rather than seeing what was now in …

Performance is Complicated

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USA gold medal winner Heather O'Reilly by Geoff Livingston, Wikimedia Commons,Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers: The story of success, writes that accomplishment is all about practice, timing and the doors that are opened for you along the way. In fact, Gladwell firmly believes that inherent talent has little, if anything, to do with success. He provides a number of convincing examples and trends that support his premise: success is about being in the right place at the right time with access to the right people and tools; and that mastery of …

Working Offsite Boosts Creativity and Focus

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Geographic Project, Barrie Eyre, Wikmedia Commons We recommend that vacation time be a time to unplug, unwind and recharge. Taking work on a vacation does not help with any of those objectives. On the other hand, turning remote work into something enjoyable in a vacation-like environment never hurt anyone. This is not to suggest that “workations” replace regular vacations. On the contrary, this is about doing the work you might normally do in your home office or at a co-working location on a beach, at a cottage, on your patio or even on a mountaintop. Sometimes a change …

Spring Forward at Work

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Anyone who has lived through this past winter (yes, it’s over, even if Mother Nature hasn’t quite conceded the point yet!), knows that weather can affect your mood.  From the physiological and psychological reactions to reduced daylight and perpetual cold, to acute stress caused by hazardous driving conditions and having to winter-dress children every time they leave the house; life in general is just a bit harder when facing a harsh winter. Grasshopper of the ZEBRA Stelzentheater, by Katharina on Flikr On the flip side, sunny days and balmy temperatures have been shown to increase …

Focus, Flow and Productivity in the Open Office

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Cubicle Fresh by Sean Duffell According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no, I can’t pronounce it either!), psychology professor and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, people are most creative and productive when they are in a state of “flow.” Understanding "Flow" Flow is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”[1] This TED Talk by Professor …

Employees Want to do Better

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Oliver1983, Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 A quick review of the top work-related resolutions in the U.S. from Glassdoor’s Q4, 2013 Employee Confidence Survey reveals that respondents (who are not planning a job change in 2014!) are keen to improve their leadership skills and take other work-related training to enhance their job performance. Young people around the world are loudly exclaiming “We want to work and make a meaningful contribution to society.” In Canada, the Bank of Montreal released a survey asking Canadian employees to list their work related New Year’s resolutions[1]. Of …

Problem Solving is Not an Event

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Occasionally we find ourselves caught in the “paralysis of analysis” when attempting to solve a problem. To make progress, we have to come to terms with the fact that deciding on a course of action frequently requires us to move forward with incomplete or imperfect information. The reality is that there will always be more information available later. Rather than getting stuck, we have to make the best decision we can with the information on hand, and be prepared to iterate and make adjustments as new information comes in. US Navy via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain* Problem Solving …

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