The Illusion Of Competence: Multitasking Our Way To Mediocrity

“Excuse me, I have to take this call. I will be back to this article on multitasking right after I check my e-mails, see what updates I have on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and Yelp, and order those materials for my upcoming team-building workshop, decide on which airfare is best for the trip, see what that “beeping” is, check to see if the laundry is done, and listen to my daughter explain how she just has to go to another all-night party with her friends.” No problem, right? “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah! The article on multitasking! Or was it team-building? And what about that new phone that lets me download my apps faster than ever? And that little, online TV news feed in the upper corner of my computer that is keeping me constantly up-to-date on world events.”

We don’t, technically, ever really “multitask.” We switch back and forth between multiple tasks. The faster we are able to do that, the more it seems like multitasking. Does the ability to do that, however, translate into more productivity or greater efficiency? The overwhelming conclusions from scientific research indicate “no.” In fact, most studies report a decline in effectiveness on most tasks when people try to multitask. As with most skills, some people are better at “multitasking” than others. But, overall, even those who are best at it perform worse than people who attempt the same tasks without the distractions encountered with multitasking. The danger of trying to do too many things at once is, of course, less when the tasks are relatively simple and have few consequences (walking and chewing gum). But, as the complexity of the task increases and the stakes become higher (making important business decisions, driving a car), the “multitasking deficit” becomes increasingly treacherous. Some of the consequences include:

  • Poor recall. People simply do not remember as much or as accurately. Information “learned” while multitasking is often forgotten or recalled incorrectly. Much of this research was done on college students preparing for exams but also has considerable application to leaders in the workplace.
  • Longer time to complete tasks. It may seem counter-intuitive but multitasking actually slows people down. It takes longer to get things done. A mundane example comes from an experiment in which people were asked to perform two tasks: the first, count to 10 as fast a possible, the second, recite the alphabet from “A” to “J” as quickly as possible. Each task typically requires about two seconds. So, a person can perform both tasks in about four seconds. Next, they were asked to switch between tasks (A1, B2, C3, D4, etc.). The time to complete the task increased tremendously (15 to 30 seconds or more). There is, apparently, a certain amount of time that the brain needs for “switching.” When you leave one task, then come back to it later, it takes the brain a little time to readjust. Those little bits of time add up and when you are constantly switching back and forth, it can add considerably to the amount of time devoted to each task as well as the total. Bottlenecks are created. This is, essentially, the same thing that happens to your computer when you have too many windows open at the same time. The time required for “switching” eventually accumulates to the point that the computer slooooooooowwwwwwws dooowwwwn and eventually you have to reboot.
  • Less ability to understand concepts. In some experiments, participants performed relatively well on tasks while multitasking but failed to understand the task fully. They were less able to use the information that they had “learned.” “In 2006 a team of scholars led by Karin Foerde, reported on an experiment suggesting that distraction during learning can be harmful, even if the distraction doesn’t seem to injure students’ immediate performance on their tasks….Their “weather forecasts” [their performance] under distraction were roughly as accurate as they were during the other three trials. But when they were asked afterward to describe the general probabilistic rules for that trial…, they did much worse than they did after the undistracted trials. Foerde and her colleagues argue that when the subjects were distracted, they learned the multitasking productivity leadership skills at workweather rules through a half-conscious system of “habit memory,” and that when they were undistracted, they encoded the weather rules through what is known as the declarative-memory system—information that is encoded in declarative memory is more flexible—that is, people are more likely to be able to draw analogies and extrapolate from it.
  • More easily distracted by new, incoming information. If you saw an animated movie called “Up,” there was a talking dog who could carry on a conversation with considerable skill until distracted. In the middle of the conversation, he would suddenly say, “Squirrel!” When he returned to the conversation, he would be on a completely different subject. The same thing happens at work. During a meeting, the cell phone beeps or a new e-mail comes in on the laptop or iPad (“Squirrel”) and suddenly everyone is off on a new tangent. The original thread of the conversation is lost. The team must start over.
  • Younger people who multitask a lot are no better at it than those who don’t. (Carrier, L Mark, Cheever, Nancy A, Rosen, Larry D, Benitez, Sandra, & Chang, Jennifer (2009). “Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans”, Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 25, p483–489). Even though young, multitaskers believe that they are superior at doing many things at once, the evidence does not support that confidence. Clifford Nass, Eval Ophir, and Anthony Wagner in a classic study done at Stanford say, “We kept looking for what they’re [high multitaskers] better at, and we didn’t find it.” They say that heavy multitaskers not only are not as efficient as low multitaskers at almost everything, but they are possibly doing long term damage to their cognitive ability. They are actually becoming less capable of filtering out distracting, non-useful information than low multitaskers.

All of these ideas point to an organizational culture where there is less thinking, less understanding, less attention to detail, less mindfulness, and, ultimately, less productivity. Like many “new” things, multitasking seems desirable until it is better understood. Who wouldn’t want to get more things done in less time? But, like many gimmicks, multitasking doesn’t really deliver on its promise.

What, then, do we do with all of these devices that “help” us get more done. Like all technology, the utility of the tools depends on our ability to use them properly. Any parent who has watched his or her teenager do homework in front of the TV with the iPod attached and texting her friends at the same time understands that something has to change. Any facilitator who has tried to conduct a workshop while the participants are checking their e-mails and responding to “urgent” text messages understands that there must be a better way. There have been many articles written that give pretty good advice. Some of the time-tested “truths” are summarized below. If you really want to get things done and produce good quality work, here are a few thoughts:

  • Do one thing at a time. This doesn’t mean that if you have a project that requires twenty hours to complete that you need to work twenty hours straight. Break the task down into smaller chunks of a few minutes or a couple of hours and stay focused for that time. If it’s an article you are writing, finish gathering all of the reference material or complete the opening paragraph, etc. But, don’t stop and check your e-mail until that segment is done.
  • Eliminate distractions. Don’t have the news going in the background. Don’t be carrying on a conversation with a new hire. Don’t write while you have the phone stuck to your ear. Close the door. Wear the sound reducing earphones.
  • Rest occasionally. One of the reasons multitasking doesn’t work is that the brain has no time to recover. The brain is an organ that uses energy. It takes it at least a few seconds to refresh after intense usage. Sometimes even thirty seconds can go a long way toward preparing you for the next task.
  • Eat right. Exercise. Etc. All of the things we have learned about fitness apply to the healthy functioning of the brain. The evidence suggests that too much multitasking not only lowers our productivity but actually reduces our IQ.

As the leader of your team, don’t encourage people to multitask. If they are going away to a training workshop, make sure that their work is covered by someone else. Don’t call them on the cell phone or send “emergency” e-mails. Don’t pull people out of meetings to ‘trouble-shoot” another project. Encourage them to plan ahead so that work doesn’t pile up. Don’t reward team members for doing a lot of things at once. When they come to you, listen to them and only to them. Don’t send the wrong signals by half listening and half checking your e-mails. Don’t make heroes of team members who work 70 hours a week. They are probably not getting any more work done than the team members who work 40 hours but set priorities and concentrate on the one or two most important things every day. It is also probable that the 70-hour-a-week team member may not be exercising the best judgment. Set the example. Learn to say “no” to new assignments once in a while. Don’t try to do everything and certainly don’t try to do it all at once.

You should also avoid the temptation to pack your leadership training with every topic you can possibly imagine. “Hey, let’s add a module on work-life balance. Great. Let’s add another one on benchmarking. Don’t forget networking and social media. We can work them all in and do it in a half-day.”

The workplace is becoming increasingly complex. In a way, the idea that we need to concentrate on fewer things at once seems counterintuitive. Shouldn’t we learn to think in more complex ways? It is seductive to believe that we will gain an “edge” by being able to do more things at once. But, so far, the evidence does not support that idea. No one knows if, in the future, we will learn to think about more than one thing at a time or at least reduce the “switching time” to near zero. But, there is nothing in the current research that indicates that as a real possibility. Human beings are just not designed that way.


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