His idea of fun is to be plugged into his Xbox, joking with his buddies on his headset as he guides the Red Wings to a win in the latest NHL game, while also fielding calls on Skype, sending Tweets, updating his Facebook and Instagram, and answering texts.
It’s dizzying to watch, and though we marvel at the younger generation’s ease and ability when it comes to technology, some experts warn that, contrary to popular belief, multitasking at work can actually hurt productivity.
According to the magazine Psychology Today, multitasking is a misnomer created by the “technological-industrial complex” to make people feel better about being spread too thin.
Is Multitasking Even Possible?
In reality, says Dr. Jim Taylor, multitasking – or engaging in two tasks at the same time – isn’t even technically possible unless at least one of the tasks is automatic – like eating or walking – and doesn’t require focus.
Taylor says what multitaskers are engaging in is actually serial tasking, or jumping quickly from task to task in a way that results in constant disruption and a lot of starting and stopping.
Although this shift may feel lightning fast, this serial tasking takes up to 40 percent more time than focusing on one thing, especially for complicated tasks. Multitasking also makes people anxious. Researchers at the University of California Irvine found that people who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state that quickened their heart rate. On the flip side, when employees took a five-day sabbatical from checking email, their heart rates normalized and their concentration increased.
Effects on the Workforce
But multitasking doesn’t just affect the person trying to do many things at once – it affects the people they’re around too. How many of us have tried to have a serious conversation with a colleague or client only to watch their attention drift to their cell phone? That kind of multitasking undermines trust, can reduce confidence, and throws a wrench in communication — all productivity-killing acts your business can’t afford.
If you need another reason to question the effective existence of multitasking, consider a 2010 study which found multitasking can destroy creativity and hamper outside-of-the-box problem solving. And in today’s job market, an employee’s ability to differentiate themselves through innovative thinking matters more than ever.
Stay on Target
If it’s genuinely increased productivity you’re after, efficiency experts suggest tackling tasks in batches. File your expense reports in one sitting, or answer all your emails to a specific project as soon as you log in instead waiting to do it later.
Other tips from Mindtools on how to maximize efficiency: Turn off audible and visual email and text alerts to help preserve concentration and manage your interruptions. If it’s Kevin in the next cubicle who is destroying your ability to focus by continually popping in and starting a conversation, don’t be afraid to gently but firmly tell him to cut it out.
If you get distracted and begin on a second, third or fourth task, stop. Take a deep breath or a lap around the block. Make notes on exactly where you are in your current task, if necessary, before moving on to the next task.
The key to sustained output, experts agree, is to stay in the moment. My favorite mantra is one I borrowed from Star Wars: “Stay on target. Stay on target.” Get in the zone and knock it out!