This study makes multitasking seem completely overrated

Published February 24, 2016   Posted in How to Think

Most of us like to think of ourselves as wickedly effective at multitasking. We believe that we can whip back and forth between tasks and get a wide wrath of things done in just a fraction of the time as pillars of freaking productivity.

This study makes multitasking seem overratedBut a study by the New York Times – published a whole two years ago – suggests that multitasking may not be all that its cracked up to be. In fact, it might be killing your productivity.

The study found that on average, it takes most people 25 minutes to refocus on a task after being interrupted. Worse, the study also found that a typical office worker only gets around 11 minutes of time between each interruption.

Do the math.

The interruptions that we face, even if they are self-induced under the guise of multitasking, may be killing our productivity and we don’t even know it.

Related: This NPR study suggests that very few of us actually “multitask”.

Businessman stressed by too many tasks

A wickedly effective multitasking businessman!

And it got me thinking – after all, I’m a fucking great multitasker. I can swing from a pendulum Tarzan-style and tear through multiple tasks at once – that’s how I work smart, after all. Effortlessly getting several things done at once. Totally kicking productivity’s ass.

Wait – actually, that’s a lie. I don’t know the exact moment, but I realized some time ago that I totally suck at trying to tackle multiple tasks at the same time, or quickly going back and forth between tasks in the hopes of getting more done in the same amount of time.

It just didn’t work for me. And if you believe this study, it probably doesn’t work for most people, either. Specifically, it found a 20% reduction in cognitive abilities when interruptions occur.

While it is true that the interruptions in this study were caused by an external force rather than participants willingly distracting themselves by focusing on multiple tasks at once, there is wisdom to be taken from this study.

In general, we suck at performing a task unless we focus entirely on that task.

Think about it. How many times have you muttered to yourself under your breath, “Okay, now where was I…?” as you settled back into whatever you had previously started? How many times have you accidentally redone a portion of that task that you had already completed and simply forgotten about? Or researched information that you had already found? Or review data that you already knew?

It happens…to all of us. While each of us are different, for most people it takes time to get fully engaged in each task that we do, and our brains are hard-wired to do a single task at a time, and do it well. People are most efficient when they focus on one thing at a time.

We are short-changing ourselves when we bounce from one task to the next without giving our brains the time to fully engage in whatever we are doing.

What is one of the most prevalent sources of interruptions in the work place? Email.

An email comes in, and like kids anxiously awaiting permission to tear into their birthday gifts, we generally want to know who just sent us that email with great anticipation. After all, “it might be important”.

At least for me, nine times out of 10, the email isn’t all that important. In fact, it wasn’t even directed at me, but I happened to be on the distribution list that it was sent to. Great, now to refocus on whatever I was doing.

But it’s worse when we actually engage ourselves in that message. If we do choose to respond, we take the time to shift our minds to that email, talk to this person or that person, write a reply, proof read it if we’re being careful, press send and hope that everything will turn out okay.

By the time all that’s done, we have completely lost focus on the task we were doing before the email came in. An average of 25 minutes later, we’re back to where we were before the email interruption.

Lost productivity.

But, what if we anticipate distractions?

A bright spot in this study is actually quite fascinating. We tend to be more productive when we anticipate distractions because we mentally focus more effectively on our task than if we anticipate no distractions. We do this by squeezing more productive work into the time that we spend on the task – but still – only if we focus on one task at a time.

“I gotta get this done before the 10am meeting!” – A phrase I’ve uttered many-a-time in my working career, and it does tend to make me more focused on the task at hand. And guess what? I usually ignore email and other distractions after I give myself that mental deadline.

Anticipating distractions is a positive psychological element to productivity. Who knew?

Do you like to multitask? Are there techniques that you use to lessen the “refocus” time when you return to an incomplete task?

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32 responses to “This study makes multitasking seem completely overrated”

  1. Multitasking is overrated. 🙂 I end up completing a little bit of everything, but nothing fully. I try and shutoff the distractions like turning the e-mail notification off while working on a project so I can stay focused on the task at hand.

  2. I am trying much harder to stop “multitasking”. I have been trying to focus on just the one task at hand until it is completed. If other things comes up during that time period, I will note them and then look at them once I have completed. If actual urgent things comes up, I will re-prioritize.

    It is interesting regarding the “anticipating interruption”. Whenever I am doing anything at the office, I always anticipate that I am going to get interrupted because it just seems to be common practice there, no matter what I try to do to stop it…

  3. I’ve heard some research on multi-tasking being less efficient, and I believe it. As a mom, I have to “multi-task,” i.e. handle constant interruptions, and it makes everything take much longer! And I’ve noticed that I get disrupted by email, or try to listen to a podcast while doing other things but then don’t remember what I listened to.

    • Steve says:

      I have that problem a lot, actually – listening to something while doing something else, I have no idea what I just listened to. I’m right there with you on that one.

  4. I’m like you — I realized long ago that I’m terrible at multitasking (like everyone, as it turns out), and so I’ve stopped trying to do it. I sometimes see colleagues working with the TV on (24-hour news cycle!), and with Tweetdeck taking up one monitor, and I just think, “No wonder your work is lousy.” I assume at some time society will have the pendulum swing back the other way, and we’ll realize the importance of focus and dedicated thinking/working/creative time. Or maybe the next generation will just evolve to be better multitaskers than we are currently. 🙂

    • Steve says:

      I used to be one of those people who had 24-hour news on, well, almost 24 hours a day. What a waste of time that was, and yes, somewhat distracting. All the best for the next generation and their ability to do multiple things at once while keeping productivity high! 🙂

  5. My new favorite podcast is Note to Self. I cannot gobble them up fast enough. The episodes on multitasking and information overload overwhelmed me in such a good way. I dedicated a few hours one weekend to cleaning up my smartphone, and I feel so much better. The whole Infomagical series is really inspiring. I cannot single-task when I teach. I try, but there’s always some “fire” somewhere that needs to be put out. I do try to sneak in a 2-minute meditation session with Calm during my break. It makes such a difference in my focus, mood, and alertness.

    • Steve says:

      Ah yes, the smart phone. Yeah, that thing can get way out of hand if we let it. I totally hate those things, even though they may have become a necessary evil these days.

  6. John says:

    The more tasks I try to do, the less seems to gets done! My only trick is – since I’m an early riser – to get any important tasks knocked out early, before too many distractions can arise. This helps to take the pressure off, too!


    • Steve says:

      Just like you, John, I’m an early riser. I definitely find that I get the most done earlier in the day before everybody else wakes up. Makes a huge difference!

  7. I like to focus on 1 task at a time. The time cost of starting and stopping a train of thought or documenting where I was in a process is a huge overhead cost of multitasking.

    When I have to focus I close all social media and email and just do it. I also work better with deadlines since if I have to deliver at a certain time I am forced to focus and use my time wisely.

    • Steve says:

      “The time cost of starting and stopping a train of thought or documenting where I was in a process is a huge overhead cost of multitasking” – spot on right, and I never truly realized that until I started to do some actual research into all this. It’s amazing, actually.

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot about multitasking lately. I’m really good at reading and grinding wheat, but that’s about all. 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Ha! At the gym, I’ve noticed people are good at reading a book while working out, too (still not sure how that works, but to each their own!). 🙂

  9. Ugh I hate multi-tasking so I try to consecutive-task. As in line the things I have to do in a row and tackle them one by one. I use the Pomodoro technique – so 25 mins on one task, 5 mins rest. Then if I have multiple things vying for my attention I will spend 25 mins on another task. Usually I work best if I can repeat my Pomodoro cycle at least 3 times for something like a blog post. But often for life stuff one cycle is enough to get it done, well.

    • Steve says:

      Sounds legit to me! At least 25 minutes of undivided attention is more than most people get, after all. We tend to be able to get through remarkable amounts of work if we just focus on one thing at a time. 🙂

  10. Jaime says:

    Yes but unfortunately at an interview they want to hear that you can multitask even though several studies have debunked multitasking. I know I suck at it and I’m not even going to pretend. Just another reason of why the corporate world is out of touch.

    • Steve says:

      It’s true that’s what most corporations want to hear because they naively think that multitasking is another word for productivity. Absolutely agree – another reason why the corporate world is very much out of touch.

  11. Wow some interesting stats – 25 mins!
    I really try not to multitask but not very good at it!
    Am trying to be more present in my everyday life so not multitasking should be the first step.
    Thanks for the reminder!

  12. Ah multitasking – it seems when I am at home trying to get my to-do list taken care of, I’m doing this like crazy. Unfortunately, I always end up taking more steps with no direct path because I tend to forget what I was trying to accomplish while doing so! Work is the biggest challenge. I work in a more collaborative office environment, and we have email & an internal messaging system. It’s a lot to balance all of this, but I’m working on taking focus. Only having one tab up vs. 20, so I can focus on the one task at hand. I like the anticipation factor!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, Alyssa – yup, slowing down while doing your tasks is a huge helping factor as well, no doubt. I often find that when I rush, I don’t do my tasks nearly as well. And one tab instead of 20? That sounds splendidly awesome! 🙂

  13. I also used to think I was a GREAT multitasker. I started believing this when I was in college and prided myself on how great I was at it. I heard a speaker about 5 years ago – the guy who wrote “The Making Of A Corporate Athlete” – say how bad it is to try to multitask and I soon noticed how right he was. When it comes to emails, I turned off notifications and have adopted approach that I only peruse the inbox at 8am, 11:30am and 5pm. Anything more urgent, my team knows to call or text me.

    • Steve says:

      Amen to that, MrFireStation – if it’s important enough, you’ll call or text. Otherwise, it can probably wait until I am free. Love that working attitude! 🙂

  14. Jason says:

    I think that is true to an extent, particularly as it exists for money. That is why I think Dave Ramsey is so successful. My problem is that I go back and forth between what I should do. My problem is that I try to multitask financially. Focus, focus, focus that is the name of the game.

  15. I have to say, the picture of the guy reminded me of myself. Well, except I am older,heavier, have lighter hair, and don’t were suits at work. However, I do feel like I have six arms working all at once.

    I struggle with keeping focused on a task until its completion – getting pulled away for the next information/time wasting event that has captured my attention and seems to be more important. Heck, I wrote this whole comment without multitasking – progress!

    • Steve says:

      Ha! Any progress is good progress. Sometimes we can’t control getting pulled away from our tasks (because: work). If only more companies knew just how damaging that practice is to productivity. Or, perhaps I should say, “cared”.

  16. Batching tasks has worked great for me. I’ll make sure to only check email twice a day… After that, they’re just going to have to wait.

    If things are really an emergency, people have my phone or they can come find me. They almost never do.

    • Steve says:

      “They almost never do” – ha! Yup, funny how that happens. If it’s convenient (email), then sure, why not make contact. But if it actually takes effort, then screw it, it can wait until tomorrow. 🙂

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