On the surface, multi-tasking sounds like a perfect plan for increasing productivity without also increasing labor time. Who wouldn’t want that, right?
“Must have the ability to multi-task”
How many times have we seen this as a requirement as part of a job description? On the surface, it sounds like a perfect plan for increasing productivity without also increasing labor time. Who wouldn’t want that, right? While it is technically possible to perform more than one task at a time, unfortunately “productivity” is not the result… at least, not the kind of efficient and high-quality productivity most employers are truly looking for.
It Messes With Your Brain
Many articles are available online concerning the downside of multi-tasking. This one by MentalFloss in 2016 cites studies showing that productivity actually decreases during multi-tasking. And not only that, multi-tasking also has been linked to damage to one’s thought processes, impairing one’s ability to do their best work and be their best selves in the future. Quoting Larry Kim, founder and chief technology officer of Wordstream, from the article “One study from the University of Sussex in the UK indicates that forms of multitasking can cause cognitive damage. MRI scans showed that subjects who consumed multiple media forms at once had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, the region associated with empathy and emotional control.”
Rewarding the Wrong Effort
So why did multi-tasking become such a sought-after ability? As we said, the illusion of getting more done in a work day would appeal to any employer (basically, all employers) for whom time is money and fewer employees mean more revenue. It also appeals to employees who believe it will help them stand out in a competitive environment. As with most things that seem too good to be true, this concept is as well. Sure, you may have employees who can multi-task. However, the measure of success should not only be the performance of tasks, but the quality of the work that results.
Many reasons exist why multi-tasking is a bad idea, as evidenced in the articles, but we will mention three important ones here.
- The human brain was not wired to achieve efficiency and quality through distraction, but instead, through focus. Organizing thoughts and filtering out unnecessary information requires an individual to concentrate in order to extend the thought process beyond the immediate shiny thing.
According to the Mental Floss article, one study at the University of London revealed that “subjects who multitasked while performing brain-intensive tasks demonstrated IQ drops similar to people who are sleep-deprived or smoke marijuana.” Constantly forcing one’s brain to process information in a way that it was not designed to work leads to inefficiency, poor communication, and a drop in work quality, as well as stress and irritability… which leads to #2.
- Multi-tasking is stressful. Studies have shown that as distractions increase, the release of cortisol increases. Cortisol is a stress hormone that can cause anxiety, sleep loss, and even depression. Additionally, when a small task is completed, dopamine (the feel-good hormone) is released. Because it feels good to complete a small task, we start to seek more “hits” of dopamine, attending mostly to the small tasks that give us immediate reward. This tendency may become a hard-to-break habit of avoiding the complicated tasks that need our full attention for the long haul… which leads to #3.
- When employees work together, the negative effects of multi-tasking influence everyone else. Because of the lack of efficiency and/or quality mentioned above, the multi-tasking person may cause extra work for the team or cause the team’s overall performance to suffer. This, in turn, creates resentment among team members. Further, many of us have been in a meeting with someone who is constantly on their smartphone, paying attention to their text alerts, answering phone calls, or looking at their laptop. It is very distracting to the speaker and to other colleagues, and when that behavior occurs in a one-on-one meeting, it’s especially inconsiderate.
What You Really Need
One of the unfortunate drawbacks of this trend toward multi-tasking is that it “appears” to be hard work… the multi-tasker seems to be a real go-getter. Yet just as wheels can spin fast when stuck in mud, so the multi-tasker’s motions are not efficient forward movement. Many businesses like the adage, “work smarter, not harder.” Multi-tasking is not working smarter.
Employers need to ask themselves if the employees they are really looking for are those who know how to prioritize tasks, as opposed to trying to juggle many tasks at the same time. Setting priorities is, indeed, a valuable and helpful skill that can result in quality work, less stressed employees, and a more efficient team all working toward the same goal and understanding they have the time to accomplish what is most important.