Multitasking: A Productivity Skill or Detriment?

Mark Ballanceby Mark Ballance "Time Saving Addict"
Last updated on May 7, 2015

This resume-building staple is now under assault as researchers study the effects of multitasking on cognitive processes

Whether answering email during a conference call or generating accounting reports while reviewing the day's schedule you are multitasking. Unfortunately, recent studies have questioned whether the practice translates into improved production. So in this article, we'll take a deeper look into the value of multitasking.

A Desired Skill

As Daniel Patrick Forrester pointed out in an article for Bloomberg Business: Peruse any job website and you'll find literally thousands of descriptions making it clear that those who can't handle multitasking need not apply.

Why? Because taking care of multiple tasks at the same time generates the sensation of productivity. In an article written for, business strategy expert Michelle Kvello said: A burst of organising my desk whilst listening to a podcast and taking a couple of calls can make me feel pumped up enough to tackle a weighty task in the afternoon.

A Cognitive Interruption

Author Travis Bradberry said multitasking is not a habit to indulge. He based his assertion on two studies: one by the University of London that found participants who multitasked experienced declining IQ scores; and another by the University of Sussex that found people who media multitasked (e.g. watching TV while texting) experienced negative effects on their brain structure.

Another study published by the American Psychological Association said even brief mental blocks created by multitasking can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time. Psychologists tend to liken [multitasking] to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.

In a post for Psychology Today, Dr. Susan Weinschenk said switching between tasks is expensive because completion time takes longer overall and more errors occur. Her assertion is supported by a Michigan State University study that found a three-second distraction to perform a different task caused double the mistakes people made in the original task.

To Break the Habit

Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check E-mail In The Morning says entrepreneurs who multitask too much should work more sequentially. They are focused on a goal, but they have eight arms moving at once trying to achieve it...they have to change hats, but switching hats too often is not effective.

Dr. Weinschenk said one way to break away from multitasking is to go after hard projects first thing in the morning with the cell phone and email turned off. This will re-introduce the power of concentration and potentially carry over for the rest of the day.

Another piece of advice Forrester offers is to schedule a time to detach. He notes that Colin Powell, Thomas Edison, and Jim Henson all had methods of shutting off the noise, which allowed them to gain perspective and focus.

Let Us Know Your Thoughts

Clearly, this issue has two sides. So what do you think: is multitasking a productivity skill or a detriment?
Last updated, 21 April 2015, 14:32

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