There’s growing evidence that multitasking can be harmful, and businesses need to re-examine goals for workers, writes Ruth Mantell in the Wall Street Journal
“With the ubiquity of mobile devices and other communications technology, many workers are expected to multitask, with some employees taking pride in their perceived ability to switch between complex tasks. But all this multitasking is putting workers, as well as their employers, at risk, experts say.
"It’s unequivocally the case that workers who are doing multiple things at one time are doing them poorly," says Clifford Nass, director of the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab at Stanford University. "The human brain just really isn’t built to switch rapidly from one task to another. Workers who constantly multitask are hurting their ability to get work done, even when they are not multitasking. People become much more distracted, can’t manage their memory very well."
Companies that demand multitasking may be damaging productivity.
"It would be a total tragedy if when we have so much potential to make the work force more intelligent, we are actually making the work force dumber," Mr. Nass says. "Companies that are demanding that workers multitask might not only be hurting their productivity, but may be making the workforce worse thinkers."
In a 2009 study, Mr. Nass and other researchers found that heavy media multitaskers are "more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli," and were worse at switching between tasks, likely because of their lesser ability to ignore irrelevant information.
Some companies are beginning to worry about the impact of multitasking, Mr. Nass says.
"Slowly you are starting to see companies starting to change from everything having to be answered immediately," Mr. Nass says.
From an employer’s point of view, one of the most worrying effects may be the trouble that chronic multitaskers have focusing.
"They are seduced by irrelevancy. They are constantly distracting themselves. They will look for distraction even when no such distraction exists," Mr. Nass says. "We are creating a culture that encourages workers to be less effective, handle information poorly and have a tougher time in social relationships. What does the work force look like where people can’t pay attention, where people can’t think deeply and where people lack emotional skills? It’s a pretty scary world."
Troubles can start when individuals try to work simultaneously on more than one complex task. Complex tasks require some reflection or mindfulness, says Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Anything that involves upgrading information requires consciousness, and that’s where the limited bandwidth comes in," says Mr. Miller.
Complex multitasking can mean missing out on details.
"The best way to get things properly stored in long-term memory is to pay close attention to them, and if you are overtaxing your short-term memory, you are going to be missing things and they won’t appear in long-term memory because they won’t be stored in the first place," Mr. Miller says.
When workers do complex multitasking they are often in a state of stress, and unable to recognize opportunities and solutions, says Linda Stone, a former senior high-tech executive based in Seattle.
"There could be an answer right in front of you that doesn’t look like what you think it should look like," Ms. Stone says. "In a stressed state, we often miss things that are right in front of us."
Multitaskers think they are much more successful at completing tasks than they actually are, experts say. Ms. Stone uses the phrase "continuous partial attention" to describe complex multitasking.
"We may believe that when we’re driving and talking on a cellphone, we are aware of everything around us," Ms. Stone says. "The truth is, we’re often missing quite a bit."
It can be tough to resist the allure of an unread email or unresponded-to instant message, but the reward is completing tasks at a higher quality level. Here are tips from the experts about how to stop, or at least curb, multitasking:
Strategize: "Plan ahead and remove the possibility of distraction. If there are [fewer] things tempting you, it’s easier to focus on the job at hand," says Mr. Miller.
Work on a single task for at least 20 minutes: "When you start to do something, do it and nothing else for 20 minutes. This trains you to focus, to think deeply. It trains you not to think that distraction is a positive, and it teaches your brain to be able to focus," Mr. Nass says.
Make face time sacred: "It’s very, very important for the human brain to really spend some time talking to one person, face-to-face, without any technological distraction," Mr. Nass says”