In today’s business world, companies are looking to cut costs and optimize processes. Sometimes that involves asking employees to take on additional tasks and projects that wouldn’t be included in their basic job description. More and more people in office settings are spending their time bouncing back and forth between tasks, believing that there are many benefits of multitasking, including increased efficiency.
New studies, however, have uncovered that multitasking is a cause of concern. These studies suggest that multitasking causes us to: make more mistakes, retain less information, and change the way our brain works. This raises questions as to whether multitasking is good for workers.
Business executives rely on a variety of professionals, including psychology experts, to empower workers to become more efficient multitaskers. A master’s degree in applied psychology can arm aspiring corporate psychology professionals with the toolkit to improve workers’ satisfaction and productivity — making them essential contributors to an organization’s success strategy.
How Your Brain Multitasks
Before exploring the potential drawbacks and benefits of multitasking, it’s important to understand how our brains handle multiple simultaneous tasks in the first place. The brain’s prefrontal cortex begins working anytime you need to pay attention. This area of your brain helps keep your attention on a single goal and carry out the task at hand by coordinating messages with other brain systems.
Working on a single task means both sides of the prefrontal cortex are working together in harmony. Adding another task, however, forces the left and right sides of the brain to function independently from one another. Multitasking can actually hinder productivity and increase the likelihood of mistakes.
Importantly, multitasking while performing simple, everyday actions like eating and walking simultaneously is much easier than doing more complicated tasks like texting and driving simultaneously. This is because simple tasks place less demand on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which means easier switching between tasks.
In business settings, however, the tasks that workers take on are typically neurologically complicated. This suggests that requiring workers to complete multiple tasks simultaneously could have significant negative effects.
Multitasking Affects Your Brain’s Efficiency
In everyday society, the ability to perform multiple tasks at work is often praised as a faster way to get more done. A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, however, indicates the opposite. The authors found that multitasking is actually less efficient because it takes extra time to shift mental gears every time a person switches between tasks.
Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D., of the Federal Aviation Administration, has proposed new models of cognitive control. The first, called goal shifting, involves actively deciding to change tasks. Once you have decided to switch processes, your brain begins rule activation. This requires your brain to turn off the cognitive rules of the old task and turn on new rules for the next.
This process can be seen in the workplace when a worker switches from completing financial excel sheets to writing emails, for example. The individual’s brain must first shift goals and decide that it is done with the math processes and ready to begin writing. The extra time it takes for the brain to fully switch attention and cognitive rules lead to workplace inefficiency.
Efficiency and task-switching are significant issues for managers, especially those who direct remote teams. To effectively lead virtual teams, managers must encourage members to stay focused on one task before moving on to the next one, allowing adequate time for the brain to fully switch attention.
Potential Benefits of Multitasking?
While there seems to be a plethora of evidence that does not support its efficacy, there may be some benefits of multitasking. A 2021 Frontiers in Psychology study notes that, in today’s digital world, multitasking between different forms of media is inevitable. As such, learning how to productively multitask is essential to success in a world where we switch between different media, programs and devices daily.
Another study found that, while attempting to undertake multiple tasks at once can diminish productivity, the perception of multitasking itself boosted performance. Among 32 studies with 8,242 participants, those who believed they were multitasking outperformed those who believed they were completing a single task. Shalena Srna, a UX researcher at Meta, explains, “We find that multitasking is often a matter of perception that helps, rather than harms, engagement and performance. Thus, when we engage in a given activity, construing it as multitasking could help us.”
Is Multitasking Good? Key Takeaways for Management
Research shows the drawbacks usually outweigh the benefits of multitasking, especially in corporate environments where employees take on complex tasks. Managers who wish to support and build productivity should keep the following in mind when evaluating if multitasking is good for employees.
- Be sensitive to challenges when multitasking.
- Help employees prioritize work.
- Ease off the gas once in a while: Allow for slow periods of time to give employees a break.
- Keep business transparent to help employees feel valued.
- Communicate expectations clearly.
- Communicate face-to-face, which is more effective than email.
How to Be Efficient Without Multitasking
Avoiding multitasking at work can be difficult, especially when employees feel overwhelmed. Given the diminished benefits of multitasking, however, professionals can make a few simple and conscious changes to work more efficiently.
Instead of bouncing back and forth between tasks and tabs, efficient workers dedicate chunks of time to a certain task. For example, they might spend 20 minutes reading the day’s news and then move on to their next assignment for 20 minutes, and so on.
How to Combat Multitasking in Teams
Single-tasking on an individual level seems easy enough, but what happens when a team is involved? Multitasking with a group of coworkers makes for a higher chance of miscommunication, missed deadlines and poor work quality. If everyone in the group is distracted, there is little to no chance of coming together and producing the best work possible.
To rescue a sinking team, it’s important to advise team members to remain collectively focused on one task, schedule blocks of time and use fewer tools that can get in the way. Productivity rates skyrocket when the group focuses their attention on one task, allowing them to join forces and devote themselves to the project at hand. By creating blocks of time for different tasks, teams have a better chance of staying productive, on task and on schedule.
Lastly, with only the most effective platforms being used, each team member will have shorter transition times between tasks, keeping them in a productive mindset.
Using Applied Psychology for Organizational Productivity
Understanding the drawbacks and benefits of multitasking is important for workplace productivity and effective workload management, which can ultimately drive productive organizational change. Those looking to leverage psychology for organizational success should consider advanced education in applied psychology.
With a distinguished faculty, USC’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology Program (MAPP) provides an in-depth look at consumer and organizational psychology for management, recruitment and organizational change and development. Explore how USC MAPP can help you apply psychological principles and methods to improve organizations.
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American Psychological Association, Multitasking: Switching Costs
American Psychological Association, “Multitasking Undermines Our Efficiency, Study Suggests”
Cleveland Clinic, “Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work”
Cerebrum, Multicosts of Multitasking
Frontiers in Psychology, “Why Do We Need Media Multitasking? A Self-Regulatory Perspective”
Harvard Business Review, How to Spend Less Time on Email Every Day
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching”
SAGE Journals, “The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance”
Science Daily, “The Illusion of Multitasking Boosts Performance”