About a year ago, I began to take to heart Flylady’s tips on not getting sidetracked on what I was doing. I found that I would flit from thing to thing; usually trying to do more than one thing at once. This multitasking was causing me to burn dinner while I tried to clean the kitchen, or forget about the laundry that needed to be folded while I dealt with the mail. I found that the busier my life got, the more damage multitasking seemed to do to me and what I was trying to accomplish.
Multitasking was touted back in the ’90s as the perfect solution to the busyness in people’s lives. Not enough time? Do more than one thing at once. Clean your kitchen while talking on the phone. Do your bills while watching television. Knit dishcloths while walking on a treadmill. We’re starting to see a deadly consequence to multitasking with people being on cell phones and driving.
Is Multitasking Bad?
When I was doing the research for this article, I tried to pull up articles that said that multitasking was actually beneficial. However, all the articles I found, including studies, and articles from reported on years ago, multitasking has been shown to be very bad on the people. The Time cover story, says “There’s substantial literature on how the brain handles multitasking. And basically, it doesn’t.”
How Does Multitasking Affect Productivity?
The same Time article quotes the following startling statistic from the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan:
“When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer–often double the time or more–to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially.”
Wow. That really has impact on productivity theory. We only have 100% attention to give to any one thing at once, and instead of true multitasking where we process independently separate tasks as the same time, our brain actually time-slices, or gives full attention to one thing at a time, switching back and forth between the tasks. This leads to lost time as we switch between the tasks. In fact, University of Michigan released a study that found that The time to refocus your attention on a new task may be only a few seconds with each switch, but over time, it will reduce your total efficiency by 20% to 40%. In fact, the BBC reported that the Institute of Psychiatry found that “those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ.”
There are those that claim that not all multitasking is bad. Generally these applications take the form of doing something physical at the same time as doing something mental. Cloistered religious do this all the time. They pray while performing simple repetitive tasks. Good as that may be, I have to wonder on the psychic toll taken by people who are not fully present in the moment, giving their brains time to relax and not engaged. After all, if we are so focused on self-improvement while doing other things, where is the room for letting go and getting creative? As Joan Borysenko points out in Inner Peace for Busy People (aff), Einstein got one of his biggest flashes while sailing; Poincare while stepping off a bus. Would these have happened if they had been listening to learning language tapes or podcasts? I doubt it.
Going Back to Single Tasking
The more I have researched it, the more I am convinced that my gut instincts are correct: multitasking is bad for productivity. I can get more done, better, if I focus on what is going on right now, instead of doing many things at the same time. It will be a hard habit to break, but I think one well worth the effort. I don’t think I’ll ever have a flash of insight like Einstein or Poincare, but who knows what may happen when I open myself up and not let my brain be overtaxed by multiple threads of processing.