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Multitasking Might Harm Your Health (And Your Business)

Modern workers might find it hard to believe that multitasking is a relatively new idea.

For most of us, the need to accomplish many things at once seems like a given. But, believe it or not, the concept of multitasking didn’t crop up in the workplace until around the time that every desk got a computer.

Our computers (and now our cell phones) are one-stop shops for communication, research, word processing—you name it. Most desktops can generate a report, download e-mail, and support a videoconference all at the same time, without skipping a beat.

These machines have become so central to our lives that it makes sense we have come to see ourselves in their image. If our computers can juggle three or four things at once, well, so can we.


Seeds Of Doubt

Or can we?

In the 1990s, multitasking became recognized as an attribute—even a requirement—in the workplace. But as it became a buzzword in the business world, psychiatrists wondered if the human brain was really up to the task.

That skepticism quickly spread outside the laboratory as many states made it illegal for drivers to hold cell phones while on the road. Multitasking became widely recognized as dangerous, at least from behind the wheel.

By 2010, The New York Times was reporting on the hazards of what it termed “lower-stakes multitasking”—that is, using a cell phone while walking. Anecdotal evidence included firsthand accounts from people so absorbed in their phone conversations that they sustained injuries from walking into windows and cars.

Meanwhile, researchers at Western Washington University discovered that pedestrians on a call were far less likely than their phone-free counterparts to see a clown on a unicycle.

If those callers didn’t notice a flashy clown, how much work can we really accomplish as we, say, compose an e-mail, send an instant message, make coffee and prepare for a meeting … all while we’re on a call?

Maybe the ability to multitask isn’t a virtue, after all.


The Myth Of Multitasking

Some of the most compelling evidence against multitasking is from the mouths of former believers.

In 2009, researchers at Stanford set out to investigate what makes multitaskers special. The surprising result? The people who considered themselves talented multitaskers were consistently outperformed by their less confident counterparts.

Clifford Nass, co-author of the study, told BBC News that frequent multitaskers “are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.”

Other researchers that approached the topic of multitasking from different angles have arrived at similar conclusions. Multitasking is not only inefficient, but it might also be a hazard to your health.

 

Multitasking Slows You Down

People multitask because they want to be productive. But many scientists think of multitasking as a process of constant self-interruption. You might feel more efficient as you juggle tasks, but studies suggest that multitasking actually slows you down.

Researchers at University of California at Irvine spent time in the field with office workers on the job. They found that those workers took an average of 25 minutes to recover from a simple distraction like a phone call.

Back in the laboratory, researchers at University of Michigan found that switching between tasks actually slows our thinking.

This lag is called a “time cost.” The brain has to perform a series of switches to give the illusion that two things are happening at once. So if you’re, say, trying to write an e-mail and talk on the phone at the same time, it takes longer to accomplish both.

 

Multitasking Dumbs You Down

Research suggests that multitaskers are more likely to make errors than their focused counterparts. More disturbingly, multitasking might even change the way we learn.

Psychologists at UCLA studied MRIs to identify active brain areas used by learners. They found that distracted learners use a different part of the brain to form memories. Multitaskers tend to rely on the brain’s striatum, an area involved in learning new skills. Focused people are more likely to use the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores and recalls information.

Hippocampus memories are stronger and more flexible than those routed through the striatum. Translation? If you want to remember something, you’d better pay attention.

 

Losing Focus

Unfortunately, attention can be hard to come by. Dr. Edward Hallowell, an attention deficit disorder specialist who has described multitasking as a “mythical activity,” believes the demands of the modern workplace make it difficult to concentrate and make good decisions.

He coined the phrase attention deficit trait to describe workplace-induced ADD. ADT patients experience high stress levels that make them irritable, impulsive and unhappy. Hallowell’s treatment plan is simple. When patients cut back on multitasking, they feel better about work—and themselves.

Linda Stone, a technology expert, agrees that the modern world places too many demands on our attention. She, too, coined a phrase—“continuous partial attention”—to describe the way in which we constantly monitor streams of information from e-mail, text messages, Twitter and other sources.

Continuous partial attention, Stone says, comes from our desire to feel connected and informed. And yet, paradoxically, it can isolate us from friends and family, who have trouble making themselves heard above the din of all those rings and beeps.

 

Don’t Put It On Vibrate

Cell phones and laptops are supposed to make us more accessible and productive. In theory, they’re tools we use to support and enhance our lives.

But, for many people, these devices have become the center around which the rest of life revolves.

Sure, there are times when you need to stand by for an important call or e-mail. But under normal circumstances, how critical is a given voice mail or text?

Think of it this way: Your electronic gadgets should be helpful, not distracting. In the information age, attention—not technology—is your most precious resource.

Here are a few tips that will help you direct your attention to the things that matter most.

  • Whenever you’re tempted to set a device to vibrate, turn it off instead.
  • Avoid constantly monitoring your e-mail and voice mail. Check messages a few times a day.
  • Consider using an automated “out-of-the-office” message when you take time off.
  • Designate time with friends and family when you won’t allow interruptions.

Another good reason to unplug periodically is to give your brain a break. Technology expert Linda Stone says that continuous partial attention puts us in a false (but constant) state of high alert. That mode just isn’t conducive to daydreaming, which might be vital to your business.

Researchers at NYU’s Center for Neural Science believe that daydreaming is crucial to memory formation. And an emerging body of research on daydreaming suggests that letting the mind wander boosts creativity and problem-solving skills.

 

Selective Multitasking

In a perfect world, we would all downgrade to single-tasking, otherwise known as taking one thing at a time. But for most people (and especially for small-business owners, who are used to wearing many hats), single-tasking is unrealistic.

The next-best thing is selective multitasking. Limit multitasking to straightforward activities that won’t compete for your mental resources. Then try to single-task whenever your work seems more involved.

It’s almost always OK to multitask when you’re taking care of mindless tasks like organizing paperwork or browsing the Web. The waiting room is also fair game, so go ahead and make a few calls before your appointment or while you’re stuck at the airport.

Switch to single-tasking when you’re doing work that requires active thought. Same goes if you’re trying to learn a skill or remember a fact. Concentration is key when you’re trying to form strong memories.

Finally, never multitask when you’re doing something potentially dangerous, like driving. In a situation where every second counts, you can’t afford to get distracted.

 

Alternatives To Multitasking

Still feel like you’re addicted to multitasking? Break the habit and boost your productivity by trying these effective alternatives.

  • Minimize interruptions by working before or after traditional business hours, when people are less likely to distract you with calls, e-mails and visits. If your schedule isn’t flexible, you don’t have to work a 60-hour week to make it happen. Simply set aside one day a week to start early or stay late, or put in a few extra hours every other weekend.
  • Group like with like. Since it takes time for your brain to switch gears as you move from one type of task to another, you’ll save time if you group similar activities in batches. Make phone calls all at once. Handle your e-mails in bulk. Set aside time for Internet searches instead of surfing the Web throughout the day.
  • Reduce mental clutter (and soothe your anxious subconscious) by using tools like calendars, to-do lists, personal digital assistants and organizers as external brains. It doesn’t matter if you use your computer, another gadget or a piece of paper. The important thing is to find a system that works for you and stick with it.
  • Maintain focus by using little reminders. Each morning, choose one (or two or three) tasks or projects that need your attention that day. Make a note of each priority to post somewhere obvious, like on your computer monitor. This simple system will help you stay on task as you’re interrupted throughout the day.

 

For More Information

Get more information on the harmful effects of multitasking at these websites.

Professor Gloria Mark’s body of work on multitasking in the workplace

The Kaiser Foundation weighs in on multitasking and the next generation

The Mayo Clinic on stress management