Multi-Tasking Myths and Reality

The turmoil of a typical workday creates endless opportunities and constant pressure to do many things concurrently.  Our technology lets us conference call during our commute, email during meetings, and channel the great football commentator John Madden by handling a continuous stream of inbound pings as we tackle the workday requests from co-workers, customers, clients, and our social networks.

Multitasking is the universally accepted vernacular we use to reassure ourselves that our technology is allowing us to do more, keep up, and get us better all the time.  Whether it’s the constant pull of texting, reviewing pings, or tending to the self-imposed requirements of email, your mind has many opportunities to get sidetracked with the fix of the moment.

Adopting more of its increasing capabilities, multitasking tools seem very natural: why not attend a meeting or a workshop while browsing the web at courtesy of ubiquitous wi-fi. Or document your lunch hour outing with pictures via Instagram for your social network, or respond to messages as soon as they arrive in your inbox while you are working to complete an unrelated proposl.   Multitasking means you are getting it “ALL” done at once, doesn’t it?

But are we getting it done?  Several years ago, a Frontline documentary called Digital Nation delved into some overlooked realities of multi-tasking. The program illustrated the potential shortcomings by chronicling a Stanford experiment that tested college-age students and their success at multitasking. The results from this research showed the students who multi-tasked had issues thinking clearly, mostly because they tried to pay attention to everything. The non-multi-task group was more focused and more efficient at completing tasks as well as more proficient at filtering out irrelevant data. (To read more about the Stanford study, click here:

More recent research shows that multitasking is a serious drain on productivity.  Instead of advancing multiple tasks at once, it increasingly looks like multitasking causes us to do things poorly, and perhaps, where it relates to work, we create more work.  According to Andrew Filev, CEO and founder of Wrikeshifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. If an individual works 40 hours per week, that’s 16 hours of lost time—two full days per week. That is a number that can’t be ignored.

In today’s fast-moving, always-on office environment, employees and managers alike have to understand the potential high cost of inefficient multitasking and how to employ strategies to keep the chaos to a minimum.  According to the American Psychological Association, there are four common types of multitaskers:

  1. You are approach-oriented or reward-focused. Your brain says “If I do more work at once, I can complete more work at once.”  While this seems intuitive, the reality is this doesn’t work.
  2. You are a high-sensation seeker. These are people who use multitasking to fight boredom (or because of boredom). By shifting focus periodically, you keep your mind engaged with a new task.  This may lead to incomplete tasks as you shift to another focus.
  3. You’re convinced you’re part of the 2 percent of people who can multitask effectively. It’s normal for us to think we’re better at multitasking than we are. Be cognizant of your actual productivity, and see if you’re really as good as you think.
  4. You have trouble focusing. You may not be multitasking intentionally. Use technology as a tool for focus, rather than distraction. Mute your notifications, minimize your tabs, and avoid your inbox while focusing on work.

So how do we take back our attention and advance our quality of work from the digital distractions?  Here are some simple strategies to make those devices and apps allies instead of obstacles to productivity:

  • Take back your time by being mindful of your goals for the day: When a new task pops up, ask yourself, “Is this important for meeting today’s goals or objectives?” If not, it’s probably not something you urgently need to shift your attention toward.
  • Adjust your settings/surroundings to cut down on distractions: If you can’t mute everything, funnel your inbound alerts into a single stream where you can prioritize some items and reject others. You can also use apps to help you bundle and channel the noise. A little bit of time spent adjusting notification settings or process on the worst offenders (e.g., instant messaging) is a worthwhile endeavor. Set aside a few minutes at the top of an hour or every 90 minutes when you check in to see if anything needs immediate attention. For those moments when you need to get into the flow, enforce solitude by silencing notifications entirely.
  • Utilize features of your e-mail client to reduce the visual clutter of your mailbox: Send all of your e-newsletters to another folder, and read them when you have time, and so they won’t distract you when they appear throughout the day. Better, ask yourself if you need to actually monitor your inbox on your phone or computer in real time.  For the most part, most emails shouldn’t require your immediate attention.

The technologies we adopt unquestionably allow for doing things differently and, many times, more efficiently. We should, however, be mindful that the technology we introduce, increasingly competes for our attention.  Most people are not proficient multitaskers and constant distractions from technology can cloud the intended benefits of the tools.  Understanding how we work best and where technology belongs most in our work is the ongoing chore.  If additional focus, increased efficiency, and improved productivity are desired, being attentive to the flow of the moment-to-moment and eliminating distractions in the form of excessive interruptions may get us closer to getting it ALL done moreso than adding an additional tool with the potential to interrupt our Groove.


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