Call Us: 800-299-3770 Fax: 508-651-2674

Multi-tasking vs. Juggling at Work

This Fast Company article makes a great point about how multi-tasking does not necessarily make us more productive.  Likely, it’s just the opposite.

Doing two things at once, like singing while you take a shower, is not the same as instant messaging while writing a research report. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can multitask jobs that need your full attention. You’re not really having a conversation while you write; you’re shifting your attention back and forth between the two activities quickly. You’re juggling. When you juggle tasks, your work suffers AND takes longer–because switching tasks costs.

To see what it’s like to use the SAME part of your brain for two different activities, try this:

  • Rotate your right foot clockwise and keep it going.
  • At the same time, with your right hand, draw the number 6.
  • Can’t do it? Try writing with the other hand.

You might also share my experience of talking (hands-free) on the phone while driving. It all works well until you hear a siren or see something unusual. At that point, you’re likely to shift your focus or say, “hold on, I need to pay attention to the road.”

Brain Science at Work

  1. Required Parts of the Brain: If you need the same part of your brain to complete both tasks, you may simply perform one at a time. Your brain will quickly alternate between both activities making it seem like they are concurrent. In the worst cases, you might forget one of the tasks altogether. Check out the work of neuroscientists Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron of the French biomedical research agency INSERM in Paris.
  2. Fidget to Focus: In their book, Fidget to Focus, Sarah Wright and Roland Rotz explain that doing a mindless task, like fidgeting or doodling can actually make those who suffer from ADHD more productive. Some have suggested that in prehistoric times, focusing 100% on a single task could leave us vulnerable to predators. Maybe that’s why we’re so easily distracted when our phone or computer bings with a message, or we become aware of someone standing nearby as they away a moment to jump in with a question. Mindless tasks or those that use different parts of the brain can enhance productivity, utilizing that otherwise counterproductive floating attention.
  3. Costs of Switching Tasks: Scientists out of UC Irvine suggest that after a task is interrupted, workers can usually make up lost time by working faster, but the interrupted conditions correlate to greater stress and frustration. They say,

“Surprisingly our results show that interrupted work is performed faster. We offer an interpretation. When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (and writing less) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted. Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and greater effort. So interrupted work may be done faster but at a price.

Take a Walk!

Those seeking ways to increase productivity will be more successful if they busy themselves with an additional mindless activity, like doodling or fidgeting, rather than with a distracting activity that interrupts their chain of thought or uses a similar area of the brain. Alternatively, committed multitaskers might consider taking a walk or chewing gum while they’re thinking, talking, or working.

Please share your thoughts!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *