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The Myth of Multitasking: Why Doing More Doesn’t Help

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    In most cases, multitasking actually works against us, compromising the quality of our output and actually causing us to accomplish less in more time. Read why multitasking isn’t the solution to cognitive overload and tech disengagement.

    When cognitive overload pushes our limited capacities into a corner and paralyzes our thoughts, multitasking feels like the only option.

    Except it isn’t — and it’s not even possible in most situations. Here’s what multitasking really means, as well as what you can do to overcome cognitive overload without holding yourself back.

    What is multitasking?

    According to the Berkeley Well-Being Institute, multitasking is the act of putting focus on more than one task at once. It can involve trying to perform two things at the same time or rapidly switching back and forth between them.

    Ideally, multitasking would allow us to make the most out of our time, either by giving us more space to breathe or maximizing what we’re capable of. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case in practice.

    Does multitasking work?

    The short answer is “no,” at least not in the way we think it would.

    In fact, a study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review found only 2.5% of people can effectively perform dual tasks. (Even so, the experiment took a linear approach, examining only how well the subjects could text while driving.)

    “I’m not going to blanket say all multitasking is bad because I don’t believe that,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author and all-around science ambassador, in a recent episode of the HR Break Room® podcast. “I’m going to say, be careful about what you choose to multitask. And we tend to overvalue our competence when we are multitasking. And that’s the real danger there.”

    4 disadvantages of multitasking

    You might pull off multitasking with some actions, but that doesn’t mean we can do it consistently or efficiently. It could even harm the quality of our output for an illusion of taking less time.

    Here are four ways multitasking actually works against us.

    1. Lowers productivity and accuracy

    Ironically, multitasking often amplifies the issue it tries to solve. In most cases, it still requires us to divide our time, but at a rate that compromises our focus.

    A study featured in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that even with relatively simple cognitive tasks, people took twice as long on average to complete activities when they were repeatedly forced to switch. Most participants still failed to accomplish anything faster even when they knew they were about to switch tasks.

    “You don’t get deep enough into the task to have done justice to it, even if you thought you did,” Tyson told HR Break Room. “That’s the disconnect. [Multitasking is] the delusion that you’re getting more done when everything you’re doing is not as good as it could have been, had you done it in sequence one at a time.”

    Even the act of knowing when and how to switch tasks or multitask requires focus. In other words, multitasking isn’t just about doing two things at once, but knowing how and when to perform them.

    For example, if you were attempting to text and drive — which you absolutely shouldn’t do — you’d have to determine when it was appropriate to write a response or compromise your own safety.

    2. Harms mental health

    No one actually possesses endless drive, energy or patience. Just like our bodies rest after an intense workout, our minds need breaks, too.

    A University of California study found a direct correlation between stress and amount of time students spend multitasking on their computers. The researchers also found multitasking influences the quality and efficiency of students the following day: Most ultimately took longer to complete tasks, even if they weren’t multitasking as much.

    Multitasking theoretically could create more time for us to relax — if it actually worked. Expecting HR professionals to do multiple tasks at once could:

    • compromise data accuracy
    • force them to invest more time in unnecessary tasks
    • accelerate their burnout

    Even if multitasking works at certain times, it doesn’t prove if it really results in the best possible outcome.

    3. Impacts memory

    Multitasking is a nearsighted approach that can compromise our long-term retention.

    Stanford University psychologists found individuals who rapidly switch between forms of media — like television, social media and music — performed significantly worse during basic memory tasks.

    While the study doesn’t prove multitasking always harms our memory, it does demonstrate that in most cases, it measurably divides our attention. Applying this to the workplace, an HR pro could have trouble building rapport with employees and understanding their needs if they have to routinely switch between tasks.

    4. Hinders creativity

    Multitasking may help you perform different tasks at once, but it won’t help you think about any of those tasks in different ways.

    Paul Atchley, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, wrote in Harvard Business Review that as people multitask, “creativity — a skill associated with keeping in mind multiple, less common, associations — is reduced.” That could be because it takes roughly 15 minutes to reorient to a task after a distraction.

    For instance, how could HR effectively brainstorm ways to address an ongoing engagement issue if the department is required to respond to employees’ questions every 10 minutes? We take time to recalibrate, and multitasking can’t magically eliminate that need.

    3 tips to prevent multitasking

    We don’t always have the option to choose when we multitask. Sometimes, we do it so often and unconsciously that it can seem like the only way to reasonably complete a certain task.

    But it doesn’t have to be. Keep these three tips in mind to help regain focus, eliminate distractions and get rid of the urge to constantly switch tasks.

    1. Use the right tech

    Technology may seem like the catalyst for multitasking — and bad tech definitely can be — but it also provides a way out. For instance, some HR software may require employees to log into separate, disjointed apps just to manage their:

    And even if employees’ HR data is available in one place, if the tech is hard to use, it may be just as inconvenient as multitasking.

    Sour your workforce’s digital experience enough, and they may outright refuse to use the software due to tech disengagement, a phenomenon that turns the tools designed to help against us.

    HR tech that’s available in a truly single software, however, empowers employees with everything they need to manage their work lives — with just one login and password. Since data flows seamlessly from one tool to the next, your people or HR pros don’t have to needlessly reenter info or master other software.

    As you consider how to reduce multitasking in your organization, remember simplicity, not complexity, will determine the best option.

    2. Focus on one task at a time

    As useful as the right tech can be, it’s our responsibility to determine how we navigate multiple tasks. In most cases, we’ll find we work better and more efficiently when we see one task through at a time.

    “I will sequence my tasks so that each task has a beginning, middle and end,” said Tyson. “I can get as deep as I need into [a task] before I come out, and then I’m done.”

    When we multitask, we don’t give ourselves adequate time to become comfortable with any one task. We might perform well enough, but by the very nature of multitasking, we can’t give an endeavor our undivided attention.

    However, by prioritizing tasks and completing them sequentially, we don’t have to spend as much time readjusting because we’re not really switching between tasks. Rather, we’re starting something new.

    3. Eliminate distractions

    When possible, create a space that allows you to truly focus. Sometimes that involves finding ways to avoid stimulus like office chatter or a lawn crew working near your window. Alternatively, you might find you focus better at certain times.

    If you know you focus better later in the morning, for example, try to schedule meetings or other social interactions around that time. It may take experimentation and transparency with colleagues, but the result could optimize the way you work.

    It also could help to identify which tasks you find most affected by distractions and build a strategy to protect them. You could:

    • post a sign letting co-workers know you need to focus
    • block specific slots in your calendar
    • ask a supervisor if they can help you prioritize this time
    • consult with colleagues to learn how they avoid or limit distractions

    Some disturbance will be inevitable. But if you sincerely care about the quality of your work, you’ll eventually find a method that works.

    Read our white paper to learn more about the effects of cognitive overload, how it fuels tech disengagement and what your company can do to address it.

    DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.