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To Multitask, or Not to Multitask? How it Costs Productivity

Multi-tasking at work

In today’s society, with instant access to information (and each other), it’s easy to convince ourselves that multitasking is the way to go. If you can multitask, you can be the ultimate productive worker. Let’s be honest, how many of us have said, «I’m a great multitasker»?

Sorry to disappoint you, but you’re probably not. New research suggests that multitasking actually decreases productivity rather than increasing it.

Can You Really Multitask?

Why do we consider multitasking such a great skill in the first place? Perhaps it has to do with our modern world. With the advent of social media, smart phones and so forth, we’re so connected to the world around us that we feel we should be reachable and informed at all times. Plus, it sounds like a profitable way to get twice the productivity out of someone. If they can be given two tasks to work on at the same time, and they get both done, you’re getting the work of two employees out of one.

It’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, though. Practicable in theory, but more difficult when you actually give it a try.

Putting Multitasking to the Test

A report from the Harvard Business Review shows the computer usage of two workers on the same date. One is focused on one task, while the other is multitasking (or attempting to). Their computer usage was tracked with a program called RescueTime, which tracks how many times the worker switches task per day, and what exactly they spent their time on (coding, emails, social media, etc.).

The first worker, the one who doesn’t multitask, switches tasks a total of 277 times, and only spent 40 minutes out of a 9-hour day on unproductive tasks. The second worker, the one who is trying to multitask, switched tasks 496 times and managed only 3 hours of productivity during the same 9-hour day.

Think, for example, of the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. If you’re reading that while trying to listen to the presenter, you’re going to miss something, as it’s more difficult for your brain to filter out irrelevant information when presented with multiple tasks. Or, think about when you’re talking to someone and pull out your phone to check a text. You’re likely to miss part of what the other person is saying.

Multitasking also rewires our brains – and not in a good way. Our brains are a bit like plastic, in that they can be molded and shaped depending on what it is we do, and that can change over time. If someone is constantly multitasking, their attention span drops, according to Clifford Nass in an interview with NPR. They also have a lower «emotional intelligence,» which is our ability to interact with, and read, other people.

So what’s to be done, especially from a managerial perspective?

Encourage them to take time away from their screens. Yes, everyone wants productive employees. That’s why we hire them in the first place. However, taking time away from screens and away from the desk will allow them to recharge and give their work everything they’ve got after a break.

Tune out to tune in. This goes hand in hand with the point above. Take time to disconnect from social media, smart phones, etc. and get away from the screens. Do you have a meeting or office dinner? Set a good example and use this opportunity to go screen-less. Make your meeting rooms and after work functions «no screen zones.» Interact with each other on a face-to-face basis, instead of a face-to-«oh sorry, got to check this text real fast» basis.

By encouraging employees to monotask instead of multitask, you’ll end up with a more productive staff, higher quality of work, and more than likely, happier, healthier employees.

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