Following on from my last post here is another extract from The McKinsey Quarterly in January 2011 titled Recovering from Information overload by Derek Dean & Caroline Webb talking about the perils and myth of multitasking. Guess what? Multitasking doesn’t work!
We tend to believe that by doing several things at the same time we can better handle the information rushing toward us and get more done. What’s more, multitasking—interrupting one task with another—can sometimes be fun. Each vibration of our favorite high-tech e-mail device carries the promise of potential rewards. Checking it may provide a welcome distraction from more difficult and challenging tasks. It helps us feel, at least brief ly, that we’ve accomplished something— even if only pruning our e-mail in-boxes. Unfortunately, current research indicates the opposite: multitasking unequivocally damages productivity.
It slows us down
The root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: in a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence. The delay comes from the fact that our brains can’t successfully tell us to perform two actions concurrently. When we switch tasks, our brains must choose to do so, turn off the cognitive rules for the old task, and turn on the rules for the new one. This takes time, which reduces productivity, particularly for heavy multitaskers— who, it seems, take even longer to switch between tasks than occasional multitaskers. In practice, most of us would probably acknowledge that multitasking lets us quickly cross some of the simpler items off our to-do lists. But it rarely helps us solve the toughest problems we’re working on. More often than not, it’s procrastination in disguise.
It hampers creativity
One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true. Teresa Amabile and her colleagues at the Harvard Business School evaluated the daily work patterns of more than 9,000 individuals working on projects that required creativity and innovation. They found that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person. Conversely, when people have highly fragmented days—with many activities, meetings, and discussions in groups—their creative thinking decreases significantly. These findings also make intuitive sense. Creative problem solving typically requires us to hold several thoughts at once “in memory,” so we can sense connections we hadn’t seen previously and forge new ideas. When we bounce around quickly from thought to thought, we know we’re less likely to make those crucial connections.
It makes us anxious and it’s addictive
In laboratory settings, researchers have found that subjects asked to multitask show higher levels of stress hormones. A survey of managers conducted by Reuters revealed that two-thirds of respondents believed that information overload had lessened job satisfaction and damaged their personal relationships. One-third even thought it had damaged their health. Nonetheless, evidence is emerging that humans can become quite addicted to multitasking. Edward Hallowell and John Ratey from Harvard, for instance, have written about people for whom feeling connected provides something like a “dopamine squirt”—the neural effects follow the same pathways used by addictive drugs. This effect is familiar too: who hasn’t struggled against the urge to check the smart phone when it vibrates, even when we’re in the middle of doing something else?
Tune into next post to read the final installment of our mini information overload series.
All my best,