Multitasking: Is it good or bad for productivity?
Research is divided on the benefits of doing many tasks at once. So should we curb multitasking, or should we embrace it?
Some studies show working on many tasks at once stifles productivity. Others claim it’s the answer to getting more things done. Here are the cases for both, and my multi-approach to multitasking.
The case for multitasking
Multitasking can involve a mix of tasks, some of which require brainpower and some that can be done on autopilot. Doing these “non thinking” tasks can actually engage the thinking part of the brain to solve problems, effectively boosting one’s performance on “thinking” tasks.
In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science it was found that “when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing”. It’s this additional working memory that can be utilised for problem solving. Finally a scientific basis for why so many of us have those light bulb moments in the shower or queuing at the post office!
Another study showed that experience with media multitasking (for example, using your laptop, phone and watching TV all at once) enhances people’s ability to process multi-sensory information. The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that “those who frequently use different types of media at the same time appear to be better at integrating information from multiple senses,” suggesting that practicing multitasking makes us better at it. So maybe we should just be practicing multitasking more!
"Organising my desk whilst listening to a podcast and taking a couple of calls can make me feel pumped up enough to tackle a weighty task in the afternoon."
In my personal opinion, multitasking also makes you “feel” more productive. Whilst this fact has been quoted in studies as part of the case against multitasking I’m all for doing something that makes you feel good. A burst of organising my desk whilst listening to a podcast and taking a couple of calls can make me feel pumped up enough to tackle a weighty task in the afternoon.
In today’s busy world, I feel multitasking is essential for getting things done. I could be planning my week as I’m driving to an appointment; doing my filing whilst pondering a client’s business plan and winding down by watching TV whilst cooking. Sound productive? It is for me.
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The case against multitasking
There’s some multitasking that is just plain dangerous. (I’m talking to you, Driver, reading this on your smartphone at the traffic lights.) The dangers of mobiles and driving are well documented, it’s just multitasking no-no.
Most of the time when we talk about multitasking we aren’t talking about doing multiple tasks at the same time, we’re actually talking about switching between tasks or dealing with interruptions – taking a call whilst answering a lengthy email or switching between checking email, surfing the internet and writing an article (ahem!).
When you switch tasks your brain needs a moment to catch up. In a 2001 study, American psychologists Rubinstein, Evans and Meyer documented the “switching costs” of multitasking. The time taken for your brain to switch is only a few tenths of a second but if you spend all day switching between tasks that easily adds up to a couple of hours of unproductive time.
Those big tasks need your undivided attention. Writing a proposal or working through financials whilst trying to flick between other tasks is a recipe for disaster. You need to stay focused to be most effective. Multitasking while working on important projects can result in spelling mistakes, illogical sentences and formula errors that take up extra time to review and correct; or even worse – a flawed client document.
So should we curb multitasking or should we embrace it?
My strategy is to get the best of both worlds. Multitask the non-thinking tasks, minimise the number of times you switch between tasks and develop a laser focus for those key pieces of work.
What are your thoughts on multitasking?