Article Summary: Multi-tasking seems to a highly-valued and prized skill in business today. Unfortunately, our brains aren't wired to multi-task and the research suggests that the ability to multi-task is a myth—so you might want to take it off your resume.

multi-tasking

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. argues that multi-tasking can cost you 40 percent of your productivity:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
  • You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
  • If the tasks are complex, then these time and error penalties increase.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40 percent of your productivity.
  • Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.

Keep reading to learn more.

Over the more than 35 years of my career, I’ve frequently seen both, “Must be good at multi-tasking” on job descriptions and “I’m a great multi-tasker” on resumes—neither of which portends a good or productive employee. In reality, nobody is good at multi-tasking.

Nancy K. Napier Ph.D. writes in Psychology today, “Much recent neuroscience tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.”

In other words, the idea of being an effective multi-tasker, or the effectiveness of multi-tasking, is a myth—our brains just aren’t wired to do more than one thing at a time. There are those, who can switch from task to task relatively quickly, but that is not the most productive way to go about a workday. Although we can do two things at the same time, like watching a television program while cooking dinner, our brains cannot concentrate on two things at the same time. We are either distracted by the one, or ignore the other.

A 2003 study published by the International Journal of Information Management reported that the average person checks their email once every five or so minutes—creating a distraction from the task at hand—adding that it takes about 64 seconds for your brain to reconnect with what you were doing before the interruption.

If you’re a M.A.S.H. television show fan, you might remember an episode where Hawkeye and Trapper were giving Major Charles Emerson Winchester III a hard time after one of his first shifts in surgery. They were suggesting that he was slow, to which Winchester quipped, “I do one thing at a time. I do it very well. And, then I move on to the next.”

This might not be the best way to impress your fellow meatball surgeons at the 4077 M.A.S.H., but it is the best way to be productive at work. Doing more “things” does not drive better results, doing one thing at a time, the best you can do it, will drive the best results—looking busy and being productive are two different things.

Don’t Be That Person

If you’ve ever been in a restaurant with someone who is regularly checking their smart phone, you’ve witnessed for yourself how multi-tasking doesn’t work. Not only does it feel like they aren’t engaged in the conversation you’re having with them—they aren’t. The same is true if you’re having a conversation with a colleague at work and they have their laptop open checking email, or the driver in front of you weaving around the lane because they are talking on the phone (which is why the National Transportation Safety Board reports that texting while driving is equivalent to driving with a blood-alcohol level that is three times the legal limit).

What’s more, Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. suggests The True Cost of Mulit-Tasking could be a productivity loss of 40 percent. She suggests that task switching is expensive:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
  • You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
  • If the tasks are complex, then these time and error penalties increase.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40 percent of your productivity.
  • Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.

If you’ve ever heard anyone ever say, “The busier I am the behinder I get,” they probably think multi-tasking works.

Focus on Only One Thing at a Time

Dr. Weinschenck argues, “For many years the psychology research has shown that people can only attend to one task at a time. Let me be even more specific. The research shows that people can attend to only one cognitive task at a time. You can only be thinking about one thing at a time. You can only be conducting one mental activity at a time. So you can be talking or you can be reading. You can be reading or you can be typing. You can be listening or you can be reading. One thing at time.”

While it is possible to switch back and forth from one thing to another fairly quickly—you should measure the cost of doing so.

I remember as a kid of sometimes being accused of an inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. And, while it is possible to do a repetitive physical activity like walking and a cognitive activity like talking at the same time, Dr. Weinschenk also cited a 2009 study that demonstrated people talking on their cell phones while walking, ran into people more often and didn’t notice what was going on around them. “The researchers had someone in a clown suit ride a unicycle,” she wrote. “The people talking on the cell phone were much less likely to notice or remember the clown.”

It looks like Major Winchester was on to something. Do one thing at a time. Do it well. And, then move on to the next thing.

Take your business further with the experts in small business lending

Apply in minutes

— No obligation

Apply Now

Would you rather talk to us?

Give us a call

(888) 269-4246