Think Multitasking Is Good for Business? Research Says It Isn’t

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Do you juggle several tasks at once during your workday? If so, multitasking probably tops your list of skills. But is multitasking really beneficial to productivity? There’s a lot of research that suggests it hurts productivity, rather than helps it.

Multitasking decreases productivity

Many people assume that multitasking can improve their productivity. After all, if you can send emails during a meeting, or scan reports while listening to a conference call, you’re being more productive, right?

Not necessarily.

One study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that students took far longer to solve complicated math problems when required to switch to other tasks. In fact, they were 40 percent slower than those that didn’t have to keep switching. The study suggests that no one actually multitasks; in reality, they just do a whole lot of “task-switching.”

As you go from project to project, your brain has to reboot, in a sense. You spend additional brainpower getting back up to speed on one project just in time to switch to another. Overall, it results in a loss of productivity.

“Infomania” brought on by multitasking could lower your IQ

A study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry and covered by BBC News shows the disturbing effect of multitasking.

The report indicates an increasing addiction to technology, with people checking emails and text messages constantly when they should be paying attention to something else like a conference call.

The constant barrage of messages, which researchers termed “infomania,” was shown to result in a 10-point decrease in IQ among participants. Interestingly, the study also notes that this “infomania”-related IQ drop is more than twice that found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana and IQ.

Practice doesn’t make perfect

You might think, “I’ve been multitasking for so long that I’m a well-oiled machine.” Well, research from the National Academy of Sciences suggests that heavy multitaskers are actually worse at juggling jobs than light multitaskers.

This is because heavy multitaskers are so consumed with the act of juggling tasks that they’re easily distracted by irrelevant information. Light multitaskers, who were doing fewer tasks, were more focused and able to get more accomplished.

This is one case where practice doesn’t make perfect.

The cons of multitasking

While research supports the disadvantage of multitasking, here are some common sense reasons that multitasking just doesn’t work for businesses:

1. Quality of work could suffer

If you work on two things at once, you aren’t devoting your attention to any one thing. With limited focus, you’re bound to make mistakes. For example, if you’re trying to troubleshoot an issue for a client while filing papers, you won’t do either accurately because you’re not truly focusing on either task.

2. Limited focus

Because you’re trying to juggle several tasks, you might rush through them. By focusing on each task separately, you’re more likely to give each chore the focus it deserves.

3. Less productivity

In the end, trying to multitask hurts your productivity. Your brain simply can’t juggle several tasks at once efficiently. Try implementing “singletasking” instead.

Tips to improve productivity without multitasking

If multitasking only hurts your output, what can you do to deal with the glut of emails, texts, and stacks of reports on your desk? Here are a few tips to increase productivity without trying to balance several projects at once.

1. Organize your day

At the beginning of your day, make a list of priorities. Work on your most important projects first and go from there.

2. Limit your email time

Is your afternoon lost to email after email? It’s a common problem. Try to set aside a set chunk of time to dedicate to emails. Try twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. There’s a way to deal with email overload and it doesn’t have to be Inbox Zero, it can be Inbox-“sort-of”-zero…

3. Limit time on non-essential websites

Are you losing time scrolling through Facebook or LinkedIn? While it may only seem like five minutes here and 10 minutes there, research suggests that only 17 percent of people can accurately estimate the passage of time. In other words, you’re spending more time than you think scrolling through feeds and checking blogs.

To keep your distractions to a minimum, try installing an app like Focus Lock, which locks you out of apps that are distracting.

4. Try to work in 90-minute intervals

What’s the optimum time to work on a project? Ninety minutes, according to research from Florida State University. Those who work longer than 90-minute intervals move into a state of physiological fatigue.

5. Take a break

After your 90-mintue work session, step away for a 10-mintue break. Don’t try to “power through” a project by drinking caffeine or forcing yourself to remain at your desk. Short intervals of work followed by quick breaks are best.

Do you believe you can multitask, or do you think it’s counter-productive? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Posted in Goals & Productivity
  • Harry

    Couldn’t agree more with your points. This seems counter-intuitive to many but research has proven time and again that multi-tasking will decrease your focus and in turn productivity. You have laid out some great alternatives to achieve the benefits people aim to get from multi-tasking.

    • Jonathan_Bplans

      Thanks for the comment, @Harry!