Harvard Business Review

You Can't Multitask, So Stop Trying


Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 21, 2010 9:56 AM

The year end is a busy time for almost everyone. As we use our smartphones to confirm online gift orders, we're also trying to wrap up those work tasks we should have finished in November. We feel overwhelmed but also productive, pleased with our ability to juggle so many things. In reality, however, that sort of behavior makes us less effective in our jobs and our lives.

Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that multitaskers do less and miss information. It takes time (an average of 15 minutes) to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction such as an email. Efficiency can drop by as much as 40%. Long-term memory suffers and creativity—a skill associated with keeping in mind multiple, less common, associations—is reduced.

We have a brain with billions of neurons and many trillion of connections, but we seem incapable of doing multiple things at the same time. Sadly, multitasking does not exist, at least not as we think about it. We instead switch tasks. Our brain chooses which information to process. For example, if you listen to speech, your visual cortex becomes less active, so when you talk on the phone to a client and work on your computer at the same time, you literally hear less of what the client is saying.

Why do we try?

Our brains are wired to respond strongly to social messaging, whether it is verbal or non-verbal. Knowing and improving our status, expanding awareness of our group, is important to us, and as a result information that helps us do that is often processed automatically, no matter what else we are trying to focus on.

Remote distractions, the ones aided by technology, are often unaware of current demands on us. People who call you at work, send you emails, or fire off texts can't see how busy you are with your current task. Nor can Twitter feeds or email alerts. As a result, every communication is an important one that interrupts you.

Also, we crave access to more information because it makes us comfortable. People tend to search for information that confirms what they already believe. Multiple sources of confirmation increase our confidence in our choices. Paradoxically, more information also leads to discomfort, because some of it might be conflicting. As a result, we then search for more confirmatory information.

What can we do about it?

Technological demands are here to stay. What can you do to avoid overload?

First, make an effort to do tasks one at a time. Stick with one item until completion if you can. If attention starts to wane (typically after about 18 minutes), you can switch to a new task, but take a moment to leave yourself a note about where you were with the first one. Then give the new task your full attention, again for as long as you can.

Second, know when to close your door. In the "old days," people did this when they had to work hard on something. Doing the same thing to the electronic equivalent is perhaps even more important if you want to be productive and creative. Set aside time when people know you are going to focus.

Third, admit that not all information is useful. Consider which communications are worthy of interrupting you, and what new data you should seek out. When doing a Google search, ask if you are just accessing links that confirm what you already believe or those that challenge those beliefs. Similarly, know the difference between social networks, which are likely to confirm your choices and therefore make you feel good, and knowledge networks, which might challenge them, and therefore help you make a better decision.

Paul Atchley, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kansas.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.


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