Walk down any busy street in America and you are likely to see people crossing the street while texting. In any break room, you’ll see people eating lunch while using their smart phones to check social media sites. In most offices, you’ll see people having phone conversations with colleagues or customers while simultaneously surfing the web or writing an email. Some might even have two different cell phones, one to each ear, while talking to yet a third person in person. (This is not an urban legend. I’ve witnessed it.)
Dubbed ‘multitasking’, the ability to do two or more things at the same time is considered a plus in many jobs and essential for some occupations. Indeed, many employers talk about multi-tasking like it’s a good thing. There are very few occupations where multi-tasking would be frowned upon. Perhaps brain surgeon or race car driver. Otherwise, the ability to juggle multiple projects, tasks, or even conversations simultaneously is regarded as increasingly valuable by employers. But is it truly a good thing? And is multitasking even real? Can the human brain really multi-task? If not, what is really going on when a person is doing two or three or four things at once? And how does this impact their productivity and precision?
In computer programming, multitasking is a method where multiple tasks or processes are performed during the same period of time. The tasks share common processing resources, such as the main memory. The problem arises when human brains attempt to do same thing. It appears that the human mind is unable to share common processing resources the way a computer can. In fact, most neurologists, psychiatrists and brain researchers now agree that human multitasking is actually an illusion. It is, at best, an act by a person seeming to handle more than one task at the same time but actually switching back and forth between tasks.
The Truth About Multitasking
Since the 1990s, psychologists have been doing experiments on the nature and limits of human multitasking. Others have researched multitasking in specific domains. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell has gone so far as to say that multitasking is really a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” In truth, what people are actually doing when they appear to be multi-tasking is actually context switching… rapidly toggling back and forth between tasks. Here is what studies have shown.
1. Multitasking Interferes with Even Simple Tasks
A study by Gladstone, Regan & Lee published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Experimental Psychology in 1989 and another by Harold Pashler of the American Psychological Association published in Psychological Bulletin in 1994 showed that people experience severe interference when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time, if both tasks require selecting and producing action. It appears that action planning creates a “bottleneck” because the human brain can only perform one task at a time.
2. Multitasking Interferes with Learning
One study by Richard E. Mayer, Department of Psychology University of California, Santa Barbara and Roxana Moreno, Educational Psychology Program at the University of New Mexico looked at the phenomenon of cognitive load in multimedia learning. They concluded that it is difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to learn new information while engaging in multitasking.
3. Multitasking Results In Poor Performance
Dr. Reynold Junco, Department of Academic Development and Counseling at Lock Haven University, and Dr. Sheila R. Cotton, Department of Sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, examined how multitasking affects academic success. Beginning with the premise that multitasking can impede the learning process through a form of information overload, they explored possible predictors of academic impairment due to multitasking. Published in the journal Computers & Education in February 2011, they found that college students use instant messaging at high levels, and multitasked studying or doing schoolwork while using instant messaging. Over half of those students self-reported that instant messaging had had a detrimental effect on their schoolwork. Higher levels of instant messaging and specific types of multitasking activities were associated with students not getting schoolwork done.
4. Multitasking Impacts Memory
People have a limited ability to retain information, which worsens when the amount of information increases. That is why people alter information to make it more memorable, such as separating a ten-digit phone number into three smaller groups or dividing the alphabet into sets of three to five letters. George Miller, former psychologist at Harvard University, believes the limit to the human brain’s capacity is around seven items, plus or minus two. Brains seem only capable of storing a limited amount of information in short term memory. Multitasking typically pushes the brain beyond that limit, thereby increasing the likelihood of forgetting or not storing important information.
5. Multitasking Actually Makes You Slower
Because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are more predisposed to error. When presented with a lot of information, the brain is forced to pause and refocus continuously as one switches between tasks. It is actually a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing. During this alternating of tasks, errors go way up and it takes far longer—often double the time or more—to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially. This is primarily because the brain is compelled to restart and refocus with each stop-and-start. According to a study by David Meyer, cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan and Director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, and David Kieras, the brain makes no progress whatsoever in the interim between each exchange. Therefore, multitasking people not only perform each task less suitably, but lose time in the process.
What Happens Physiologically During Multitasking
Indeed, according to a study done by Jordan Grafman, Chief of Cognitive Neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the posterior brain allows a task to be left incomplete and be able to return to the same place after an interruption and continue from there. However, focusing on multiple dissimilar tasks at once forces the brain to process all activity in its anterior. Though the brain is complex and can perform a myriad of tasks, it cannot multitask well. That’s because there is a bottleneck when asked to perform several tasks at once. The brain must then decide which activity is most important, thereby taking more time. A French MRI study published in 2010 indicated preliminary support for the hypothesis that the brain can pursue at most two goals simultaneously, one for each frontal lobe.
With so much research pointing to the drawbacks of multitasking, why are so many HR departments still listing ‘the ability to multitask’ as a desired skill and so many managers expecting employees to be able to do multiple things at once? Instead, the focus of leadership should be on minimizing interruptions and allowing employees large blocks of time to focus on one specific task at a time. This will help employees focus, concentrate, reduce mistakes, better retain information and finish work expeditiously. Just saying “NO” to multitasking is likely to have a positive impact on the bottom line… and that is one thing on everyone’s mind.
Quote of the Week
“Stressing output is the key to improving productivity, while looking to increase activity can result in just the opposite.” Paul Gauguin
© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.