Monday, 11 March 2019

The Dangers of Multitasking

How often have we seen the words “must be used to/good at multitasking/have well-developed multitasking abilities”?

Multitasking, or the process of handling many tasks at the same time, is seen by many as a sign of a truly competent person.  Business life is full of interruptions, firefighting, meetings, emails, water-cooler chats and being interrupted by friendly colleagues or phone calls.

Observation, however, suggests that multitasking makes one not only less productive, but also increases the likelihood of errors.

Studies have shown, for example, that multitasking is likely to see:
  • Up to a 25% increase in the time taken to complete a task;
  • Up to a 40% increase in time lost switching between tasks; 
  • A doubling of errors;
  • Impaired performance when performing tasks involving selection or action;
  • Impaired ability to focus;
  • Increased difficulty in retaining new information;
  • A drop in IQ of 10-15 points (equivalent to one night without sleep)!
  • Pay attention
  • Recall information
  • Switch from one job to another
  • Emails/texting/meetings
  • Emails/texting/calls
  • Meetings/web surfing
  • Driving/calling (potentially dangerous)
  • Asking how much time I need to finish a task beforeallowing interruptions;
  • Asking whether it’s more productive to keep working or to allow an interruption (e.g. the boss)?
  • Practising focussingon a task (not easy in a noisy, open plan office, which is why some wear headphones);
  • Eliminating distractions where possible;
  • Setting aside “focus times” for important tasks when I know I can work in peace (why else do people come in early or stay after the customers have left?)
  • Establishing “stopping points” during a long task to allow me to take a break (c. every 45-50 minutes);

Multitaskers typically think they’re more effective than is actually the case.  Every time they’re distracted from a task, it takes an average of 16 minutes to return fully to that task, and they often forget what they were working on!  Generally, heavy multitaskers find it more difficult to:

… compared to those who complete one task at a time. In 2014, the University of Sussex found that they also have less brain density in the region of the brain responsible for empathy, cognitive and emotional control.  They may also have difficulty in organising thoughts and in filtering out irrelevant information.

The human brain can only focus on one thing at a time.  This allows higher levels of concentration, resulting in a task being completed faster and to a higher standard.

What makes for “fertile” multitasking environments?  Generally, a crowded or hectic environment (like many offices).  Typically, we find people in these environments will multitask activities such as:

What can we do to regain control? I’ve tried (with success):

Anything that doesn’t require concentration can be multitasked in the right environment.  Catching up on emails during a client meeting doesn’t come under this heading.  

In my next post I’ll look at more multitasking solutions for the office in general.

I have spent more than half my life delivering change in different world markets from the most developed to “emerging” economies. With more than 20 years in international financial services around the world running different operations and lending businesses, I started my own Consultancy to provide solutions for improving performance, productivity and risk management.  I work with individuals, small businesses, charities, quoted companies and academic institutions across the world. An international speaker, trainer, author and fund-raiser, I can be contacted by email. My websiteprovides a full picture of my portfolio of services.  For strategic questions that you should be asking yourself, follow me at @wkm610.

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