We are told that multitasking is a necessary skill in an increasingly complex world.
We might be getting bum advice.
Research suggests multitasking does not increase one’s productivity – in fact, it wastes time. Perhaps more importantly, it erodes our ability to concentrate, analyze and even empathize.
The late Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass spent much of his career studying people juggling computers, phones and other activities.
“[M]ultitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking,” he said in an episode of PBS Frontline. “They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”
We Are Not Laptops
The dictionary defines multitasking as “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer.”
The operative word is “computer.” It might be fine for a laptop to spell-check a document while doing a disk cleanup, searching Google and recharging its battery. But we are not computing devices.
We are all too human, with limited memories and attention spans.
Blogger Merrilyn Astin Tarlton points out these downsides of multitasking:
- People who multitask show signs of cognitive deficiency. “Researchers are nearly unanimous in showing that people who chronically multitask exhibit an enormous range of deficits,” Tarlton writes. “They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”
- Multitasking has a ripple effect. Over time, chronic multitaskers lose the ability to filter out irrelevancy. Quantity trumps quality. Checking email becomes as important as working on a past-due brief.
- Multitasking alters your behavior in ways that might be long-lasting. “Multitasking behavior — particularly involving screens — mimics chemical addiction in many ways,” says Tarlton. In other words, even if you manage to curb your tendency to text, drive and listen to the radio simultaneously, it may be too late. Your brain might have lost its ability to fully readjust itself.
- Multitasking affects those around us. We have all had the experience of dining with people who can’t stop checking their smartphones. But this behavior might be more than simply annoying. It might actually be harmful to others. Research indicates that people who multitask inappropriately in public (ex: checking email during a meeting) causes those around them to grow distracted and anxious.
- Multitasking costs time and money. Interruptions from our tablet or device can throw us so far off track that it takes an average of 23 minutes to return our full focus to the original task, according to one researcher at the University of California. The solution: set aside blocks of time each day for specific tasks. Stick to the schedule. Don’t let your Facebook time spill over into other activities.
The best advice is also the simplest: Try “single-tasking” for a change. You won’t be as stressed and you will probably end up getting more done.
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact email@example.com, phone 919-619-2441.
- The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/07/business/clifford-nass-researcher-on-multitasking-dies-at-55.html?_r=0
- NPR Science Friday http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/05/10/2013/the-myth-of-multitasking.html
- Attorney at Work http://www.attorneyatwork.com/the-multitasking-mess/?goback=%2Egde_2691620_member_5827536253846831104#%21
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/multitasking