photo: Kaspars Grinvalds
Must be able to multitask. Multitasking is required.
I saw this line in a job posting only seconds ago while doing a little research for this post: “Must be able to multi-task and manage time effectively.” What an oxymoron. That employer has no idea what she is asking.
The pace of work just keeps getting faster and faster. Employees are often being asked to do more work with fewer resources and business owners often, literally, have to do it all. Many times you are handling not only your current workload, but also the workload of employees that have left but have not yet been replaced. Additionally, asking or even requiring your current and prospective employees to be skilled at multitasking is foolish. We aim to prove why.
The use of technology, like instant messaging, and smart phones has created an “always on” culture in many companies and individuals that is truly unhealthy. Many employees feel pressure from employers to respond to email and messages as soon as they are received regardless of the priority and regardless what they are working on at the moment. Many small business owners put the pressure on themselves to meet unrealistic client demands whether real or perceived. However, this behavior, which some label “multitasking,” is not productive behavior at all.
Much research has been done in recent years on the effect that “multitasking” has on productivity. This research has shown that the brain cannot actually process more than one activity at a time. So, technically, you are never actually multitasking. What you are doing is rapidly shifting from one task to another and to another, or what is referred to as nano-flipping.
Some of the negative effects this can have are short term memory loss and poor overall work quality. In some cases, as in Air Traffic Control, effective use of multitasking can mean life or death. Now, most of us aren’t in jobs that have life or death consequences, but the stress caused by constantly shifting priority, making unnecessary mistakes, having to redo work because of those mistakes, fixing other people’s mistakes, and on and on…can cause health problems that can lead to serious life or death consequences.
Studies have also shown that attempting to multitask can be costly to businesses both in terms of dollars and time. For example, it can take up to 25 minutes for someone to recover from interruption. According to the Institute for Innovation and Information Productivity, a study by Basex calculated losses of $588 billion due to interruptions by such things as mobile phone calls and others. This translates into 28 billion lost man hours.
Not only does this lack of productivity cost lost time for recovery and handling the interruption itself, as we noted previously it also causes stress and frustration which can lead to health troubles and increased medical costs.
While there are is a good case for limiting attempting to multitask, you will likely never be able to completely eliminate interruptions from your daily life. (If you’ve figured out how, please tell us how in the comments!) For the rest of us, here are a few suggestions to help get more work done without interruption and to help recover from interruptions when they occur.
1. Set aside distraction free periods of time to truly focus on getting things done. Limit technology use during these periods. If you’re an employee, ask for permission from your boss to set aside one hour a day free from instant messaging and cell phone calls. Turn off the automatic notification of email coming into your inbox.
2. When you are interrupted take a moment to jot down the last thought you had or where you were on the task. Use sticky notes or a note pad. This will help you to recover more quickly upon your return to that task.
3. Build your mental muscle and learn to focus better. According to the article “Multitasking Makes You Stupid” by Sue Shellenbarger, meditation may help to increase your mental ability to maintain focus while shifting priorities. (If you’re looking for a great meditation app, try Insight Timer – it’s free in the app store!)
Changing corporate culture and personal habits is a monumental task. Realizing the negative effect that the “always on, multitasking is a good thing” mentality creates will be a key to helping you to be more effective in the workplace. Multitasking may not actually make you stupid, but as we have discovered it does have negative effects on your work, product and stress level.
Now, we want to hear from you! We think “multitasking” is crazy making. How about you? What do you think?