Wednesday, May 16, 2020

The plain truth on the multitasking myth

Isn’t it time everyone dropped the multi-tasking idea for good?

Whatever amazing multi-tasking powers you believe you have, the facts are plain and irrefutable. Your brain isn’t able to switch back and forth between even moderately complex or demanding tasks without a major loss in speed, accuracy, and quality of processing. You may think otherwise, but it’s a myth. With complicated tasks, no one is able to overcome the inherent limitations of the human brain for processing large amounts of information simultaneously—i.e. multitasking. It just can’t be done, any more than a human being is ever going to be able to fly by flapping his or her arms. We aren’t built that way.
There’s abundant hard evidence that multitasking is a poor strategy. Dan Bobinski, writing a while ago in Management Issues, quoted Robert Croker, Ed.D., chair of the Human Resource Training and Development Department at Idaho State University, in support of the view that the human brain simply isn’t designed for multi-tasking.
It’s a common misconception is that a brain is like a computer. A computer is designed to multi-task. A human brain is not designed to function optimally in a multi-task environment.
Researchers Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D., of the Federal Aviation Administration, and David Meyer, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, proved the simple process of switching focus from one task to another ties up a considerable amount of mental processing power. Pointing to the “executive control” processes the brain uses to establish priorities among tasks and allocate the mind’s resources to them, the researchers found:
. . . executive control involves two distinct, complementary stages: goal shifting (“I want to do this now instead of that“) and rule activation (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this“). Both stages help people unconsciously switch between tasks.
When a person continually switches between tasks, the brain wastes a great deal of time and energy clearing out the processing rules for the previous task and orienting itself to the new one—only to go through the whole cycle again when the first task is back in focus. Activating and completing these procedures wastes copious amounts of time. The research indicates continually switching between tasks can make completion take four times longer, due to the time needed to keep switching mental gears.

David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, says:
The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large—amazingly so.
The quality of your work is severely diminished when trying to do even two tasks simultaneously. The more the tasks differ from one another in complexity and familiarity, the greater the effect on time and quality. According to Time Magazine, quoting Hal Pashler, psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, automatic actions, or what the researchers call “highly practiced skills” like walking or chopping an onion, can be done while thinking about other things. But any kind of action planning or decision making requires full attention.

So if you’re sitting at your desk doing nothing more demanding than moving papers from one pile to another, your brain is free to think about most anything else. But if the boss calls and asks you what you plan to do about the mess you made of last month’s sales return, you’d better give that your full attention. That’s what catches out the moronic people who drive while yakking on their cellphones. On a straight piece of road with few other vehicles, it seems easy. But let something unexpected arise that requires a choice of actions and they can’t drag their minds back to the job in hand fast enough to avoid an accident.

Multi-tasking makes you less productive, wastes your time, and lowers the quality of what you do. It increases your likelihood of mistakes, physical or verbal. Used habitually, it gradually prevents you from concentrating effectively even if you want to. It’s a very poor strategy for anyone trying to cope with demanding work.

So why do organizations encourage it? Or even tolerate it?

Multi-tasking makes you less productive, wastes your time, and lowers the quality of what you do.

Organizations believe that multi-tasking benefits them due to the conventional view that the way to a successful business is primarily based on cutting costs—especially the costs of employing people. To reduce head count, without reducing the amount of work done, demands that all those left work harder and cover more tasks. Multi-tasking looks like the answer. Halve the workforce and make everyone do two jobs at the same time. Simple!

Hence the emphasis on multi-tasking. In the short-term, the organization appears to benefit by a cost reduction (caused by employing fewer people for the same amount of work). In the longer term, reduced productivity and enhanced stress negate that benefit and impose a penalty instead. In fact, continual cost-cutting produces only a short-term benefit, often at the expense of longer-term results. But, since the typical executive rarely considers the longer-term (many don’t last that long in their jobs), they see the short-term gain and miss (or ignore) the long-term loss.

When mistakes multiply, as they will, and quality falls, the link between multi-tasking and an increase in errors is ignored. It has to be, since to do otherwise is to admit that the cost-cutting was an error. That’s quite out of the question, especially since it would invalidate “accepted wisdom” on the necessity of continually cutting costs. It’s usually easier—and far more common—to blame the individual for any mistakes, even if the organization is the real culprit.

Multi-tasking is a failed attempt by people to display super-human powers. Even wearing your underwear on the outside and a tunic with a large S on it won’t change that.

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon
Sign up for our Email Newsletter

Labels: ,

Add to Technorati Favorites Stumble Upon Toolbar


Eric said...

While I agree with the meat of the discussion it does not change the fact that many working professionals DO need to juggle many simultaneous tasks in order to complete our jobs.

As a systems administrator there is no way that I can completely avoid multi-tasking. I mitigate the problems by taking a number of steps.

1) Put off: Fewer items to do is always a plus. Many off-hand requests, if delayed, can be resolved by themselves or become unnecessary.

2) Break down: Make the tasks as simple as possible so that I can more easily find working breaks into what I'm doing.

3) Automation: A lazy admin is a good admin, automation allows for more consistency in my work output and less effort on my behalf to complete. I see this as a real win for all.

6:22 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Eric.

Do you have to multi-task? You have many jobs on the go at the same time, as is common in your line of work. In fact, the sensible actions you suggest all have this in common: they drop unnecessary items and delegate others (to automation, if need be). In this way, you are free to focus on one thing at a time.

That's the key. To keep a focus on one thing, do it, then move to the next. Meanwhile, as much as possible is delegated or simply ignored (temporarily or permanently).

What does not work well, as I explained, is swapping backwards and forwards between several tasks, doing little parts of each, changing to another, then coming back again.

When you do that, your fragmented attention grossly lowers your overall productivity and the quality of your output.

Your comment shows that, as far as possible, you don't multi-task — which shows you're wise.

Keep reading, my friend.

6:37 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.