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Caution all you multitaskers, you may not be as productive as you think. Researchers continue to find that multitasking decreases productivity, increases stress, and may cause physical discomforts such as stomach aches or headaches. In a recent study by Eric Horvitz and the University of Illinois, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They often strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment web sites.
These findings are similar to those of David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said Meyer. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”
Meyer identifies three types of multitaskers. Some people do it out of desperation, for example talking on the phone while reviewing papers. They view it as the only way to be competitive. Others multitask impulsively without even realizing they do it. They will stop mid-sentence to do a quick check of their e-mail or listen to voice mail. Hop scotching from one task to another; they don’t realize how their behavior leads to their lack of accomplishment.
The third group multitasks with pride. “Many people delusionally believe they’re good at this,” he says. “The problem is that we only have one brain and it doesn’t work that way. In reality, nobody can effectively do more than one remotely complicated thing at a time.”
Yet, multitasking in the workplace has reached epidemic proportions. A study by the Institute for the Future reported that employees of Fortune 1,000 companies send and receive 178 messages a day and are interrupted an average of at least three times an hour. The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year.
Some employees take multitasking to the extreme by hypertasking. Hypertasking refers to the transfer of multitasking at work to other responsibilities. While we may be forced to multitask just to keep up at the job, for some, it becomes a habit in all areas of life. They are seen talking on the phone while weaving in and out of traffic, balancing their check book at their child’s soccer game, and cooking dinner while they assist with homework and make phone calls. This hypertasking becomes the drug of choice for those who thrive on doing more than one thing at a time.
Technology has added to the multitasking madness with people answering cell phones on the golf course and even in church. Rather than using technology to make our lives simpler, for many people it has become a “technology tether” that keeps us plugged in and turned on. Technological optimism has led to an eroding ability to accurately estimate the time needed for tasks and projects.
There are simple steps you can take to decrease your multitasking and increase productivity: