Multi-Tasking is Productivity’s Biggest Killer

Filed Under Mind Mapping

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July 11, 2013

No one in the professional world is a stranger to wishing for more time to complete a task, but with today’s technology, constant connection and consequent distraction, time is no longer our biggest problem. Instead, today we’re faced with a more self-imposed complication: multi-tasking.

Take me for example. I have already paused writing this article in order to check my work e-mail, which I followed by checking my Facebook alerts and then the new posts in my Tumblr feed. No joke. I had a few laughs, bookmarked some useful article fodder, and I’m sure my colleague appreciated the quick response, but all of that was at the expense of my current project. Gloria Mark, a UC Irvine professor who studies digital distraction, says it can take some people up to 23 minutes to return to their task after being interrupted. It didn’t take me quite that long to get back into the swing of this article, but when I think of the number of times I fall down the rabbit hole of alerts per hour, it ends up being a lot of time lost.

Have You Seen My Head?

Once upon a time, “multi-tasking” was something you put down to enhance the Skills section of your resume. Today we don’t even think twice about it, as the technology we use in both our work and personal lives natively supports this behavior. And while it may feel like we’re doing a lot at once, Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson argue that multi-tasking is actually a misnomer. “In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a meeting is really doing something called ‘rapid toggling between tasks,’ and is engaged in constant context switching.”

With Mark’s findings in mind, taking a few minutes away from one task to quickly perform another probably isn’t an issue for the average consumer, but for us white-collar workers, it’s a detriment to productivity. Sullivan and Thompson, along with Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of IT, and psychologist Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon, constructed an experiment designed to measure the brain power lost when someone is interrupted:

“To simulate the pull of an expected cellphone call or e-mail, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test. In the experiment, 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects; one merely completed the test. The other two were told they ‘might be contacted for further instructions’ at any moment via instant message.”

During the first test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. During the second test, only the second group was interrupted. The third group awaited an interruption that never came.

To say the results were troublesome would be an understatement. Both of the interrupted groups answered correctly 20 percent less often than members of the control group, meaning interruptions made them 20 percent dumber.

Business Burnout is ForReal

According to Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, whose eureka moment came to him after he dropped his phone in the toilet, we simply don’t have the “mental bandwidth” to be doing more than one thing at once. “All those times that I thought I was using my time well — ‘Hey, I’ve got five minutes, let me check my email’ — I was actually using my bandwidth badly,” he said.

It’s not exactly a revelation. In fact, people have been talking about the benefits of being “in the moment” for ages, but now that technology supports being in too many moments at once, perhaps it’s time for a repackaging of old advice. In terms of time and productivity, Chip Cutter of LinkedIn put it nicely: “Having precious little time doesn’t matter. Spending quality time with it does.”

In the next part of this series, we’ll talk about how to keep your focus on the things that matter without having to drop your phone in the toilet.

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