The pace of work just keeps getting faster and faster. Employees are often being asked to do more work with fewer resources. Often they are handling not only their current workload, but also the workload of employees that have left but have not yet been replaced. The use of technology like instant messaging and the Blackberry has created an “always on” culture in many companies that is truly unhealthy. Excessive multitasking is not productive behavior.
Because many employers place multitasking in high esteem, job seekers and employees try hard to live up to their claims of having excellent multitasking ability. It is important for both parties to understand the pitfalls of excessive multitasking. Many employees feel pressure from employers to work on many tasks at the same time.
Much research has been done in recent years on the effect that multitasking has on employee productivity. This research has shown that the brain cannot process more than one activity at a time. So, technically, you are never actually multitasking. What you are doing is rapidly shifting from one task to another and to another. Some of the effects this can have are short term memory loss and poor overall work quality. In some cases, as in Air Traffic Control, effective use of multitasking can mean life or death.
Studies have also shown that multitasking can be costly to businesses both in terms of dollars and time. For example, it can take up to 25 minutes for an employee to recover from interruption. According to the Institute for Innovation and Information Productivity, a study by Basex calculated losses of $588 billion due to interruptions by such things as mobile phone calls and others. This translates into lost man hours of 28 billion. Not only does multitasking cost lost time for recovery and handling the interruption itself, but it also causes stress and frustration which can lead to health troubles for employees and increased medical costs.
Children growing up today are even more immersed in the multitasking culture as they are using various forms of multimedia at earlier ages, have cell phones, play video games constantly, use the internet, and try to get school work done. A study done by the Institute for Innovation & Information Productivity and Oxford University showed that younger individuals actually don’t respond as well to constant interruptions as their older counterparts. There is a myth that younger people are more adept at handling multiple forms of media in rapid succession. However, they may not actually be retaining what they are learning or making very good decisions.
While there are is a good case for limiting multitasking, you will likely never be able to completely eliminate interruptions from your daily life. Here are a few suggestions to help you to get more work done without interruption and to help you to recover from interruptions when they occur.
- Set aside distraction free periods of time to truly focus on getting things done. Limit technology use during these periods. Ask for permission from your boss to set aside one hour a day free from instant messaging and cell phone calls. Turn off the automatic notification of email coming into your inbox.
- When you are interrupted take a moment to jot down the last thought you had or where you were on the task. Use sticky notes or a note pad. This will help you to recover more quickly upon your return to that task.
- Build your mental muscle and learn to multitask better. According to the article “Multitasking Makes You Stupid” by Sue Shellenbarger, meditation may help to increase your mental ability to shift priorities.
Changing corporate culture is a monumental task. Helping companies to realize the negative effect that the “always on, multitasking is a good thing” mentality will be a key to helping employees to be more effective in the workplace. Multitasking may not make you stupid, but as we have discovered it does have negative effects on your work product and stress level.