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Multitasking Madness Decreases Productivity

Why you may not be doing as much as you think

multitasking 2Caution 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:

  • Accurately estimate the time to complete tasks. For one day, write down all the tasks you have to accomplish and estimate the time needed. Then truthfully time yourself. You will be able to find the percentage that you routinely underestimate and can adjust your work schedule.
  • Use external memory as much as possible. Albert Einstein once said that he keeps nothing in his mind that can be easily retrieved from paper. A cluttered brain makes it much more difficult to be creative and productive. External memory can be as simple as a pad of paper or using technology more effectively. Use the calendar on your computer to remind you of important dates or appointments and quick lists to organize your tasks.
  • Batch your work. Rather than checking e-mail multiple times per day, set times for reading and responding. Let your phone go to voice mail, if possible, and return phone calls during a specific time. Put similar tasks together, like paying bills and balancing your checking account, to increase efficiency.
  • Remove distractions. Control interruptions and noise. If the workplace is loud, discuss with co-workers ways to control the volume. Set times for consultation or questions rather than allowing unlimited access to your time. And make sure you don’t “interrupt yourself” by running to get more coffee or making a quick phone call. Use “butt glue” until the task is completed.

About Barbara Bartlein

Barbara Bartlein is The People Pro. She presents keynotes and training and is an expert in workplace culture. Her new book, Energy Suckers-How to Deal With Bullies in the Workplace is now available. Visit her site for more information.


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