Why Multitasking Is Bad for Productivity

Study of multitasking and productivity finds that people who multitask the most are also most prone to losing focus.

September 1, 2009

Even if you had this many arms, multitasking would be a bad idea.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—While drafting an important email, you’ve got your Internet browser open, occasionally break to instant-message with a friend, and even start chatting on the phone. Oh, and the TV’s on in the background, as usual. Sound familiar? Chronic media-multitasking—consuming several streams of media at once—has become the societal norm. The downside? Attention paid to all those media streams contributes to a lack of focus when it comes to that all-important email, your primary activity. A recent study published in the journal PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, reveals that the perceived link between multitasking and productivity isn't as positive as it seems.


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THE DETAILS: Stanford researchers conducted a series of experiments to find out whether there are systematic differences in the way heavy and light multitaskers process information. They developed an index to identify groups of heavy and light media-multitaskers among 262 college undergraduates. They then tested the two groups. According to Eyal Ophir, M.S. a researcher with Stanford Univeristy's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab and one of the study’s authors, “What we found is that people who chronically engage in media-multitasking exhibit certain cognitive deficits: specifically, they have more trouble ignoring distractions, keeping irrelevant memories from interfering in their present task, and switching from one task to another, mostly because they can't help thinking about the task they're not doing." That last finding, he notes, is surprising, since switching your brain from one task to the other is the very definition of multitasking.

WHAT IT MEANS: The study’s results suggest that contrary to people's beliefs about multitasking and productivity, heavy multitaskers have trouble keeping things separate in their minds and focusing only on what is relevant to the task at hand. They are constantly thinking about the task they just switched FROM, along with the task they just switched TO. So should we stop multitasking altogether? The answer: It depends. In terms of media-multitasking, which was the subject of this study, the practice does seem to sacrifice focus for flexibility. So, "those who don't often multitask with media are better at deciding what they focus on, and maintaining their focus," says Ophir. "On the other hand, heavy media-multitaskers are more quick to respond to events in their environment—and therefore are also more distractible. Certainly, it is imaginable that one orientation is better suited to some settings, and the other to other settings.”

Wondering if multitasking is helping or hindering you? Here’s what you can do to improve your own focus:

• Cut back on media-multitasking. It’s not clear whether media-multitasking makes people more distractible, or whether more distractible people tend to media-multitask more. In either case, cutting back is a good idea, says Ophir. "It may be a good idea to try to reduce media-multitasking where possible and try to foster periods of sustained focus,” he says. After a while you may find that you're getting more done, even if you're not working on multiple tasks at once. “Take those activities you normally do in parallel (while multitasking), and try to do them in isolation," Ophir suggests. "See if you become any more productive, both qualitatively and quantitatively, and whether, over time, you find yourself better able to sustain focus.”

• Keep your eyes on the bigger prize. Ophir provides insight into why multitasking seems so efficient, when really it isn’t: “One possibility is that when having a chat window, email client, and browser open, for example, while working on some primary task you create the opportunity for small, discrete tasks that you can quickly complete," he says. So whenever you answer a quick email or scan a website, you get a brief feeling of accomplishment—even though your primary goal, such as writing a report, isn't progressing. It's also possible the act of switching attention is itself rewarding. Counteract these sensations by reminding yourself what you need to get done, and what can wait till later.