“To do two things at once – is to do neither.” ~ Roman philosopher Publilius Syrus, 100 A.D.
When we need to accomplish many tasks, we do 2-3 things at once, sometimes more. We do this in order to be more productive. Multi-tasking has basically become the American way. In fact, employers often include “multi-tasking” as one of the desirable traits they look for in job descriptions. But is multi-tasking really leading to increased productivity?
According to some experts, the answer is no. Multi-tasking is generally less efficient than focusing on one thing at a time. Studies show it impairs productivity. It is impossible to do 2 tasks at the same time without compromising each. Supposedly, it takes your brain 4 times longer to process than if you focused on each task separately.
David Meyer, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has spent the past few decades studying multi-tasking. His research shows that not only is multi-tasking inefficient, but also can cause problems at work, at school, and even, in some cases, be dangerous. Meyer explains, “It takes time to warm up to a new task, especially if both require the same skills.” Apparently, the transition time between switching back and forth from one task to another is where multi-tasking starts to result in decreased productivity.
In addition, studies show that some tasks that are frequently grouped together conflict with one another causing a decrease in productivity. Have you ever been writing an e-mail and chatting on the phone, and realize that you are saying what you are typing, or typing what you are saying? Supposedly, it’s impossible to do both of these tasks well because each requires language skills and short-term memory. What about reading your email and talking to someone at the same time? If you’re trying to actually read your email, as opposed to maybe just skimming the names in your inbox, conversation with someone becomes difficult because you’re tackling two language activities at once: reading and listening.
Meyer has also studied the effect of multi-tasking on students (stay with one homework assignment at a time, kids), and on cell phone use while driving (read: don’t do it unless you are prepared to seriously impede your ability to drive). To see some of Meyer’s work on multi-tasking, visit his page at the University of Michigan.
Some people feel that multi-tasking helps them to stay fresh and alert, not get bored, and ward off fatigue. Some even claim that they can’t help it, as their brain gets easily distracted and goes from one thought and task to the next. However, most experts agree that the average person does not know how to multi-task well and, therefore, should refrain from doing it at all. Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute has spent a great deal of time studying multi-tasking and writes, “Multi-tasking is the enemy of extraordinariness. Human beings, sorry to say, can focus fully on only one thing at a time. When people multi-task, they are not fully engaged in anything, and partially disengaged in everything. The potential for profoundly positive impact is compromised. Multi-tasking would be okay–is okay–at certain times, but very few people seem to know when that time is.” For more information on Jim Loehr’s research on multi-tasking, visit the Human Performance Institute.
Some people claim to truly thrive on multi-tasking. But are they really increasing their productivity in a quantifiable manner, or just giving themselves (and perhaps others) the perception that they are getting more done? If you are really getting things done in a more productive manner by using multi-tasking, fine, and good for you. You have somehow managed to prove the experts wrong. But, if you have too many balls in the air, you may need to re-think your strategy — unless you learn how to juggle.