The ability to juggle work is a standard job requirement. Researchers have another name for this supposedly desirable skill, however: chronic multitasking.
If this sounds more like an affliction than a resumé booster, that’s because research has shown again and again that the human mind is not meant to multitask.
Research shows that multitasking can have long-term harmful effects on brain function
In a 2009 study, Stanford researcher Clifford Nass challenged 262 college students to complete experiments that involved switching among tasks, filtering irrelevant information, and using working memory.
- Nass and his colleagues expected that frequent multitaskers would outperform non-multitaskers on at least some of these activities.
- They found the opposite: Chronic multitaskers were abysmal at all three tasks.
- The scariest part: Only one of the experiments actually involved multitasking, signaling to Nass that even when they focus on a single activity, frequent multitaskers use their brains less effectively.
Multitasking is a weakness, not strength
In 2010, a study by neuroscientists at the French medical research agency Inserm showed:
- When people focus on two tasks simultaneously, each side of the brain tackles a different task. This suggests a two-task limit on what the human brain can handle.
- Taking on more tasks increases the likelihood of errors, so Nass suggests what he calls the 20-minute rule. Rather than switching tasks from minute to minute, dedicate a 20-minute chunk of time to a single task, and then switch to the next one.
- His second tip: ‘Don’t be a bait for email.’ The average professional spends about 23% of the day emailing, studies show. The report findings encouraged business owners and their employees to check emails a few scheduled times per day and turn email notifications off the rest of the time.
- Quick questions are often better-asked face to face or by phone, where they do not add to the huge amount of email already dealing with.
5 Ways Multitasking Can Cost You
Multitasking can be a great tool, especially for those who excel at it. But like all good tools, it’s important to remember that there are some instances where it’s very effective and other instances where there are limitations to its effectiveness. Here are a few things to watch out for as you multitask through your day:
- Some tasks shouldn’t be paired with anything. No matter how good a multitasker you may be, doing just about anything while driving can be fatal to you or to those on the road with you.
- Multitasking that includes eating should be used sparingly. Many of us eat our lunch at our desks while working, or watch TV while eating. Be aware, however, that research shows that we tend to eat more when we do other things while we eat. This can cost you in terms of decreased health and wellness, as well as decreased enjoyment, and higher food expenses.
- Increased productivity can lead to decreased quality. Maybe you can accomplish a lot more by doing two or more things at once, but what does the finished product look like? Is multitasking really more efficient if you have to do some of those tasks over, or your customer or boss is dissatisfied?
- Multitasking can steal the enjoyment of the moment. Paying close attention to a piece of music, a line of text, a bite of food, or even a work-related task can bring about a level of satisfaction and enjoyment that is sometimes lost if we’re doing something else at the same time.
- True relaxation can become obsolete. Our ‘always-on’ society has lost its appreciation for the need to occasionally turn off. Not only do many of us find it unacceptable to take time to do nothing in order to recharge ourselves, but we also sometimes sneer at those who are only doing one task at a time.
There’s no doubt that, in some situations, multitasking can increase our efficiency and allow us more time at the end of the day to do the things we really love. It can be costly, however, in terms of quality, enjoyment, health, and even money. If we’re busy trying to squeeze productivity out of every minute of the day, we might forget to actually take the necessary time to rejuvenate ourselves for tomorrow’s challenges.
Taking a break can be a great investment. So the next time you find yourself wolfing down a snack while reading an important document, think about whether it might be better to take five minutes to really savor your snack. After that, you can get right back to your document with a fresh set of eyes and a clearer perspective.