To Multitask or Not to Multitask

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To Multitask or Not to Multitask

In today’s business world, companies are having to do more with less and employees are being asked to work harder and for longer hours. A majority of people in the office spend their time bouncing back and forth between tasks, believing their multitasking is making them more efficient. New studies, however, have found that multitasking is no longer a skill to brag about, but to worry about. These studies suggest that multitasking causes us to actually make more mistakes, retain less information, and change the way our brain works, leaving everyone wondering “to multitask or not to multitask?”

How Your Brain Multitasks

The prefrontal cortex of the brain 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 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 forces the left and right sides of the brain to work independently. Scientists at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (INSERM) in Paris discovered this when they asked study participants to complete two tasks at the same time while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The results showed that the brain splits in half and causes us to forget details and make three times more mistakes when given two simultaneous goals.

It is important to note that multitasking while doing natural tasks like eating and walking are much easier than more complicated tasks like texting while driving. Those natural tasks place less of a demand on the prefrontal cortex, creating an easier switch between eating and walking to your next meeting. Not only does multitasking make us less productive, it may also be lowering our IQ and overall efficiency at work.

Multitasking Affects Your IQ

A study by the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks, experienced an IQ score decline similar to those who have stayed up all night. Some of the multitasking men had their IQ drop 15 points, leaving them with the average IQ of an 8-year-old child. The next time you find yourself in a meeting, trying to juggle listening to your boss and reading the day’s top stories, know that little information will be stored from either tasks when all is said and done.

Multitasking Affects Your Brain’s Efficiency

Being able to perform multiple tasks at work is believed to be a strength, yet a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (Vol. 27, No. 4) indicates that multitasking is less efficient because it takes extra time to shift mental gears every time a person switches between tasks. Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, of the Federal Aviation Administration, has proposed new models of cognitive control. The first, 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 someone switches from filling out financial excel sheets to writing emails. Their brain must first shift goals and decide that it is done with the math processes and ready to begin writing. Before they start writing, the brain turns off the math rules and activates language rules. The time it takes for the brain to fully switch processes and cognitive rules takes time and leads to inefficiency in the workplace.

How to Be Efficient Without Multitasking

Not multitasking at work can be difficult to stop, especially when there is a lot on your plate. Luckily, there are a few simple and conscious changes you can make to work even more efficiently. Rather than bouncing back and forth between tasks every other minute or so, dedicate chunks of time to a certain task. For example, spend 20 minutes reading the day’s news and then move on to your next assignment for 20 minutes, and so on.

A common workplace task that will challenge this strategy is checking email. Studies show the average professional spends about 23 percent of the day emailing. Inspired by that statistic, Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, and her colleague Stephen Voida studied an office, cut off 13 employees from email for five days, strapped heart monitors to their chests, and tracked their computer use. The employees ended up being less stressed when cut off from email. They focused on one task for longer periods of time and switched screens less often, thereby minimizing multitasking, and working efficiently.

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 creates 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 combat a sinking team, it’s important to remain collectively focused on one task, schedule blocks of time, and use less tools.   Productivity will skyrocket if the group focuses their attention on one task. They will be able to come together and devote themselves towards the work. By creating blocks of time for different tasks you have a better chance staying productive and on schedule towards completion. Lastly, with fewer platforms being used, each member will have less transition time between tasks, keeping them in a productive mindset. Create a work model for your team based on organization, communication, and simplicity for the best productivity.

Key Takeaways for Management

  • Be sensitive to challenges when multitasking
  • Help employees prioritize work
  • Let off the gas once in awhile. Allow for slow periods of time to give employees a break.
  • Keep business transparent to help employees feel valued.
  • Communicate expectations clearly.
  • Face-to-face communication is more effective than email.

Next time you find yourself juggling simultaneous assignments at work, stop multitasking. Give your full attention to one project at a time and you will find your quality of work and efficiency increase greatly.

USC’s online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program is uniquely structured to explore human behavior in great depth to inform real-world business decisions that affect both organizational and consumer behavior. 


Multitasking undermines our efficiency, study suggests

Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Career, New Study Suggests

Don’t Multitask: Your Brain Will Thank You

Single Tasking Teams