Insights: Consquences of Multitasking

from Bill Mackinnon, Senior Faculty at Speakeasy

Multitasking has been considered a sign of enhanced capacity and ability to master tasks and demands of an ever-increasing pace of work and life.  It has gained a lot of cache in the last few years.   People say “I am a multi-tasker,” with pride when someone comments asking “How do you do it?”  Technology and the exponential increase in information and productivity require faster completion of tasks, including communication.  Meetings and conference calls are rife with people “multitasking” to keep up with these demands.  Conveying more information, faster has been the emerging tactic or strategy in the workplace.  Unfortunately, common sense says that while looking at a mobile device in a meeting seems an effective way to get a lot done, research is showing us that there are negative consequences.

Multitasking is really rapid switching between tasks, not simultaneous task completion.  Quality of the completed tasks suffers.  Communication is also ineffective.  No one can read an email or a power point slide, and listen and absorb at the same time.  Time and energy is wasted.  In addition, the effects of this flow of work on the brain are becoming more clear.  Attention deficit syndrome (as apposed to Attention Deficit Disorder) has emerged.   Concentration for more than short periods of time becomes difficult.  Our brains begin to crave the diversity of stimulation from various sources, making it difficult to sustain focus.  Research is showing that this switching also ties up the brain’s “processing power.”  Focus is split between the ongoing observable task, and the suspended work on the “hidden” tasks.  Sustaining concentration becomes much more difficult.  This is a much less efficient way to apply mental effort and energy,  and makes rework more necessary.  Deadlines are not met, people have to work longer hours, stay later, with consequent changes in the work life balance.  When communicating with colleagues, people speak rapidly and in run on fashion, repeat themselves, speak tangentially, and stop listening while they look for an opportunity to interrupt and make a point.

Our brains, and minds, have not evolved in the last thousand years.  We are no better able to listen and digest the exponentially increasing information available, than we were, despite the advances of technology.

What to do:  Get more done, with fewer words, in less time.  Stay tuned for the next installment.