Multitasking: Helpful or Harmful?

By McGraw-Hill Higher Education

November 9, 2018

Multitasking: Helpful or Harmful?

In many ways, multitasking seems like a good idea: by working on more than one task at once, multitaskers are theoretically more productive. But even though multitaskers might seem better at their jobs, several studies indicate that multitasking actually hurts productivity. Recent studies led by Jeremy Marty-Dugas at the University of Waterloo suggest that constantly checking your smartphone while doing other work makes people more absentminded in their daily lives — and absentminded distraction is likelier to hinder job performance than to help.

Before you pick up your smartphone or try to tackle two projects at once, here are a few reasons why multitasking may actually be more harmful than helpful.

  1. Multitaskers Lose Focus More Easily. It's hard to focus on two things at once! This is the reason many states prohibit texting while driving. You wouldn't endanger yourself and others by responding to a text at forty-five miles per hour — and even though replying to emails in the middle of a phone call isn't as dangerous, it's equally distracting. As a result, multitaskers risk forgetting or omitting important information, and distraction is hardly productive.
  2. Multitasking Slows You Down. Far from increasing productivity, switching back and forth between tasks actually makes those same tasks take even longer, ultimately slowing down the pace at which work can be completed.
  3. Multitasking Isn't Always Polite. Multitasking in the privacy of your office is one thing, but texting or answering emails during staff meetings or while talking to others is rude. Unless you have permission to do other work, it's more polite to focus on the task at hand — even if the meeting or conversation is boring.
  4. Multitasking Leads to Mistakes. The Marty-Dugas study showed that multitasking enabled by smartphones allows the mind to wander — hardly the mental state you want during a one-on-one with your boss — and causes more frequent errors, likely due to a lack of attention.
  5. Multitasking is Bad for Your Brain. Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass found that even when chronic multitaskers focused on a single task, they were less efficient; Nass concluded that over time, frequent multitasking actually changes the way the brain functions, leading to decreased productivity even when focused.
  6. Multitasking Interrupts the Flow of Work. Many successful people — including writers, artists, musicians, and more — report their most creative and productive work takes place in a "flow" that allows them to focus completely on the task at hand. Naturally, multitasking is antithetical to this flow, and serial multitaskers risk being less productive and creative as a result.
  7. Multitasking Means Absentmindedness. Few people would willingly characterize themselves as forgetful, but frequent multitaskers become more absentminded over time. Because so many jobs require a reliable memory, multitaskers may find themselves at a disadvantage compared to their more focused colleagues.

Unfortunately, despite the evidence, multitasking is already an ingrained aspect in our culture and workplace. So, what can be done to counteract the negative effects of multitasking?

First, even chronic multitaskers can learn skills that will improve their brain function over time: Clifford Nass recommends focusing on a single task for at least twenty minutes before moving on to the next. If you must multitask, try to switch back and forth between no more than two projects at a time; the more tasks a multitasker tries to complete at once, the harder their brain must work — and the less likely they are to remain productive.

The good news is that educators can model multitasking best practices for their students. Because they were raised with smartphones and the internet, teenagers and young adults are even more susceptible to the negative effects of multitasking, including absentmindedness, lack of focus, and frequent mistakes. At the same time, students can still learn good work and study habits that can counteract the impulse the multitask.

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