By Erik Qualman
There is a great coffee mug that reads: “Multi-tasking, the best way to screw up both jobs.” Yet, many of us walk around with our chests out looking for a Foursquare badge for our multitasking promiscuity.
Who among us is guilty of accidentally sending a tweet to all our followers when it was intended for only one? Most likely all of us have been victims of multitasking.
As marketers, we often encourage people to be proud of their multitasking prowess; but we should definitely rethink this.
According to Josh Waitzkin, “A study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours – more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana.”
With all the tweets, texts, Facebook status updates, Flipboard articles, and social gaming, we have to multitask, don’t we? No, we don’t, and nor should we.
Yet, with increasing workloads and ambitions, we try to cram more and more into each day. As many know, I’m a huge proponent that social media actually saves us time; however it must be consumed properly to achieve this desired effect.
“That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours – more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana.”
Many of us falsely believe that multitasking is helping us be more efficient, but in fact, if done improperly, it may have the opposite effect. Folding laundry while listening to a podcast is efficient; tweeting while taking a business call is not. How often are you interrupted each day? Not by a colleague or co-worker, but by your devices, tweets, alerts, FarmVille, phone calls, and more? Numerous studies, many long before the advent of social media, reveal some interesting findings around interruptions and multitasking.
In a study by Stanford psychologists Anthony Wagner and Eyal Ophir, they found that college students who often try to juggle many flows of information performed significantly worse than those that limited their multitasking activity.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, surveyed 262 students on their media consumption habits. “We wanted to ask, ‘What happens to people who multitask all the time?’” said Clifford Nass, a Stanford University cognitive scientist.
“These are all very standard tasks in psychology,” said Nass. “In the first, there’s lots of evidence that if people do poorly, they have trouble ignoring irrelevant information. For the second task, there are many demonstrations that this is a good reflection of people’s ability to organize things in their working memory. The third task shows how fast and readily people switch from doing one thing to another.”
“There’s substantial literature on how the brain handles multi-tasking. And basically, it doesn’t…what’s really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing,” explains Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in an article for the American Management Association.
One study observed the work flow of two high-tech corporations. This time-on-task study from professors at the University of California used a sample size of 1,000 worker-hours. In this study, it was discovered that the employees only spent an average of 11 minutes before being interrupted or having to move on to something else. Then it took 25 minutes for them to work their way back to the original task, according to “Is Multi-tasking Counterproductive?” by the American Management Association.
Microsoft Research Labs ran a different focused study, but the results were similar. It found that following an interruption, such as an e-mail or phone call, the participant went and did something else 40 percent of the time. This is incredible that only 60 percent of people stayed on their original task after they were interrupted.
Researcher David Meyer, Ph.D. helped conduct a multitasking study at the University of Michigan. “People in a work setting,” says Meyer, “who are banging away on word processors at the same time they have to answer phones and talk to their co-workers or bosses – they’re doing switches all the time. Not being able to concentrate for, say, tens of minutes at a time, may mean it’s costing a company as much as 20 to 40 percent” in terms of potential efficiency lost, or the “time cost” of switching, as these researchers call it.
Perhaps the most telling of all is the data from information-technology research firm Basex. One thousand Basex employees, including managers, were studied and it was determined that 2.1 hours per day are lost to interruptions. This indicates over 26 percent of the average work day is wasted due to multitasking and unwanted interruptions.
The studies mentioned touch on how unproductive multitasking can be, but it also can take a toll on our health. Have you ever felt overwhelmed, burnt out, or full of anxiety as a result of your multitasking? My guess is yes. Unfortunately, this is a potentially fast road to depression. Constantly switching between tasks is very taxing on the brain. Simply look at your computer when you’re running multiple programs; it slows down significantly. The same thing happens to the super computer in our heads.
Managing two mental tasks at once reduces the brainpower available for either task, according to a study published in the journal NeuroImage. “It doesn’t mean you can’t do several things at the same time,” says Dr. Just, co-director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, interviewed by Buzz About Science. “But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without cost.”
As Meyer points out, “It’s kind of like one of the ‘Dirty Harry’ movies with Clint Eastwood. At the end of the film Clint says, ‘A man’s gotta know his limitations.’”
Do you know your multitasking limitations?