The myth of efficient multitasking is holding business back

Multitasking doesn't make us more productive, only more stresssed.

Most of us have been there. You’re working on a document and in comes an IM. You respond, return to your document, restart, and the IM pings again. A few exchanges later, you go back to your document. The phone on your desk pings and you can’t help but check WhatsApp. Back to your document again, after having a glance at Facebook and sending off another IM. And so it continues. We’re supposedly multitasking. 

As humans, each of us is hardwired to believe that we perform better than the average, so many of us think that we are great at multitasking. All of us are wrong. We are great at many things – but only one thing at a time. Our brains can’t do two things at once – they do one thing and then another. Flitting back and forth between several tasks causes tiredness and stress.

In addition, a much-quoted study shows that when we switch over from one focus to another, it takes as much as 23 minutes to get our focus back. In addition, it found that interruptions fuel stress. 

Despite all the evidence, a typical business day these days contain no focus and constant interruptions, as everyone imagines they’re efficiently multitasking and we seem to be doing lots of work.

We get interrupted by others. We compulsively interrupt ourselves (and not in order to stare out the window and rest, but to engage our brains with another screen). The right to interrupt is often assumed, with instant responses expected.  

In meetings, we imagine we’re efficiently multitasking by checking emails, working and checking text messages at the same time as we are ‘engaged’ in human interaction. In reality, we’re wasting both our own time and that of everyone in the meeting. Businesses are letting this happen, however. The imagined productivity – it seems like everyone’s getting a lot done – is given precedence over an enormous wealth of scientific evidence showing that this is anything but productive and efficient.

Furthermore, there is a human cost: The tiredness and stress that is the result of doing several things at once will follow staff both at work and at home. Nobody wins.

At Thrive with Digital, we believe businesses can do better. They can become more productive and profitable by addressing these issues. Not only that, but people working in those teams will feel better in the process, too. It requires a cultural change, on a team basis. It is far easier if everyone agrees that time to focus is essential and no-one expects instant responses constantly – or if everyone jointly decide that it’s more productive to do quicker, fully-present meetings with no screens. Together, a team can agree to focus on one thing at a time – and everybody wins in a multitude of ways.

People will be less tired, more focused and more productive. The fact that they are actively interacting face to face with others will make them feel more connected with others at work. That, in itself, is a big win – because being connected with others have huge benefits to our health. And what is the result of a happier, healthier workforce? A happier, more productive and more profitable business.

January 2018 addition: New research is being released showing increased levels of multitasking – and we’re not getting better at it, as related in this article from Behavioral Scientist

At Thrive with Digital, we’re always happy to chat about life and digital. Get in touch: hello@thrivewithdigital.com

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