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Multi-tasking: the unfulfilled promise of doing more with less

multitaskingDo you multi-task? You probably do and you might not even realize it. I know I do. The moment my computer goes into “Loading…” mode, I switch windows to my email, or some other work project, or a news article I’m in the middle of, or Twitter…

The common meaning of multi-tasking is doing more than one thing at once, like walking and chewing gum. Do you hold several conversations at the same time—on the phone, on Facebook and in person? Do you listen to music or the radio or watch TV or eat lunch while you check your favourite blogs and watch your auctions on eBay? Do you have several work projects on the go, spread across your real and virtual desktops? Is it hard to keep track?

Multi-tasking sounds like such a good idea, and surely it makes sense in this fast-paced interconnected world, to try as hard as we can to do as much as we can in as little time as possible, no? But does it work?

Recent research has shown that, while multi-taskers do a lot more, they don’t really do a good job of whatever it is they’re doing. US studies have shown that people who work faster when multi-tasking, but they complete fewer tasks. Another showed that students faced with math questions work much slower when they are distracted, and they suffer more stress. And another study showed that regular multi-taskers took longer to switch between projects than those who seldom multi-task.

The research suggests that multi-taskers spend a lot of time between projects, not really doing anything and not really sure of what they should be doing; also that multi-taskers’ ability to focus degrades the more they do it—yikes!

You can imagine what this means for productivity. Everyone looks like they’re performing like crazy—always with their eyes on this screen or that, or on the phone—but frequently those actions are akin to simply staring into space.

Neuroscience has the answer! Some tasks use different parts of the brain, such as walking and chewing gum. So the average person should have no trouble doing these things at the same time. The average person could probably even have a phone conversation while doing these two things. But most of our work tasks require a higher level of brain functioning, and often require the same parts of the brain. So it’s no surprise that people, on average, have difficulty talking and writing an email or text message at the same time: these are all modes of communication that use the language parts of the brain.

In fact, a similar principle probably causes your computer to go into “Loading…” mode. When several bits of information are trying to access a certain part of your processor, things are going to slow down.

Multi-tasking at a high level might simply be impossible, according to University of Hertfordshire neuropsychology professor Keith Laws:

The general understanding people have of multi-tasking is a bit of a misnomer. I’ve never seen any examples of anyone who can do three or even two intelligent tasks simultaneously. … What we really mean by multi-tasking is the ability to plan and devise strategies to do all the tasks we have to do and navigate our way through them.

Is that the end of the story? Hardly. Just because it’s impossible, doesn’t mean we’ll stop trying. And I certainly don’t think we’re doing away with the Internet or our cellphones any times soon.

In any case, it all makes sense to me because I accept laws of thermodynamics. (Although I sometimes try to get around them.)

That is: you can’t get more work out of a person/system without giving the person more time/energy.

I’m not sure if today’s employers subscribe to these same laws of nature.

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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