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Is Multi-tasking Counterproductive?

Posting Date: June 19, 2007

Pay attention. At least for a few minutes, forget the other applications on your computer. Ignore the e-mails that ceaselessly stream in or your cell phone as it pleads for your attention. Try not to do what modern life often demands: multi-task.

If you find it difficult, you’re not alone. So many of us feel our attention is constantly divided that Linda Stone, a former executive at both Microsoft and Apple, coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe the phenomenon (Johnson 2006). Because this “splintering” is potentially a significant drain on productivity, experts are looking for ways of focusing the attention of today’s employees.

Research suggests that the very word “multi-task” is a misnomer: “There’s substantial literature on how the brain handles multi-tasking. And basically, it doesn’t…what’s really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing,” explains Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (Wallis 2006).

Hal Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, concurs. His research has found that thoughtful actions such as decision making must be performed one at a time. Only tasks that are so highly practiced as to be automatic (walking, for example) can be performed simultaneously with other actions. Switching back and forth is necessary for anything that requires action planning (Wallis 2006).

If workers are engaged in multiple activities at once, they’re performing more slowly and less accurately than they would if they focused on each task until it was finished. Even those who pride themselves on their multi-tasking skills are not immune. “People may think otherwise, but it’s a myth. With such complicated tasks [you] will never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain for processing information during multi-tasking,” says David E. Meyer, director of the University of Michigan’s Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory (Wallis 2006). He also states, “If you’re trying to listen to someone speak while you’re writing an e-mail, you might only get the gist, but not the details, of what’s being said” (Scott 2006).

A time-on-task study from professors at the University of California observed the work flow of employees at two high-tech corporations for 1,000 worker-hours. The study found that the employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being interrupted or moving on to something else, after which it took an average of 25 minutes for them to work their way back to the original task (Thompson 2005). The study participants were each responsible for an average of 12 different projects (Wallis and Steptoe 2006).

A usage-patterns study conducted by Microsoft Research Labs had a different focus but showed corroborating results: It found that participants kept an average of eight computer application windows open at once, switching frequently between them. It also found that participants left what they were originally doing and went off in another direction after an interruption, such as incoming e-mail, 40% of the time (Thompson 2005).

Information-technology research firm Basex studied 1,000 office workers, including managers, and determined that 2.1 hours per day is lost to interruptions (Wallis and Steptoe 2006). Even person-to-person communication is not free from multi-tasking; Computerworld notes, “[I]t seems to have become quite acceptable to send instant messages to others in the middle of meetings. So, in addition to listening to multiple speakers at these corporate get-togethers, we now have to juggle instant message input from those same colleagues” (Gomolski 2006).

What tools and strategies can help employees manage their work flow? Separating the workday into blocks of time devoted to each project or task may help (LaBrosse 2006). Because multi-tasking is really sequential anyway, it makes sense to address work in blocks of hours rather than minutes. This saves the readjustment time between switching tasks. Productivity consultant Anne Sedler suggests scheduling 90 minutes a day of “focus time,” in which people work only and without interruption on their highest-priority projects (Sarfaty 2006).

Also, workers can help corral interruptions by setting specific times to check e-mail and voice-mail or look for updates on shared documents, project intranets, and so on. The Basex study found that more than half of the workers opened new e-mail immediately, even when they were pressed for time. Employees can also use filtering strategies, such as opening e-mail and answering phone calls outside of their scheduled communication time only if those messages are from their direct bosses or otherwise marked as highly important (Wallis and Steptoe 2006).

Another set of strategies centers around making it easier for workers to return to their primary tasks. For example, having multiple PC monitors or a larger monitor can lessen the time spent flipping through windows and scrolling up and down documents. This allows always-on programs such as dashboards and e-mail programs to be open and visible to one side so that dealing with them can be faster and less intrusive (Berger 2006; Weiss 2006).

There are also software tools available to help lessen time spent off-task. Dashboard applications can gather data from a number of sources, collate it, and keep it updated so that employees do not have to invest time keeping current. Software that supports sequential task handling by organizing time and tasks—providing calendars, to-do lists, and group scheduling—is also widely available.

Such tools and practices might be part of an evolving trend. Linda Stone suggests that the next step in culture and technology is to prioritize depth over breadth. This can be accomplished by replacing wide webs of devices that demand constant changes in focus with tools that aggregate and simplify incoming data, sort and prioritize communication, and help users deepen their concentration rather than fragment it (Johnson 2006). Amid today’s blizzard of incoming messages, information, and difficult-to-gauge priorities, this sounds like a promising, productive, and even restful future.

Documents referenced in this article include the following:
Berger, Ivan. “The Virtues of a Second Season.” New York Times [www.nytimes.com]. April 20, 2006.
Gomolski, Barbara. “Are We Multi-tasking Ourselves into Chaos?” Computerworld. ProQuest. May 22, 2006.
Johnson, Johna Till. “Tech’s Next Wave Is the Dashboard.” ComputerWorld Canada. LexisNexis. July 21, 2006.
LaBrosse, Michelle. “Project Management.” Network Journal. ProQuest. April 2006.
Sarfaty, Cheryl. “Why Multi-tasking Is Really a Big Waste of Time.” NJBIZ. ProQuest. July 17, 2006
Scott, Sarah. “The Myth of Multi-tasking.” Chatelaine. ProQuest. December 2006.
Thompson, Clive. “Meet the Life Hackers.” New York Times, October 16, 2005.
Wallis, Claudia. “The Multi-tasking Generation.” Time. ProQuest. March 27, 2006.
Wallis, Claudia and Sonja Steptoe. “Help! I’ve Lost My Focus.” Time. ProQuest. January 16, 2006.
Weiss, Todd. “Update: Could a 30-in. Monitor Help You Do Your Job Faster?” Computerworld, October 10, 2006.

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