Too many interruptions: the myth of multitasking

Nancy Anderson
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One of the biggest buzzwords of the past 10 years has been “multitasking,” the idea that our new technologies will enable us to be always on, always productive, always accessible, and able to focus on multiple priorities at once. We can talk on the phone while checking e-mail, waiting for a response to a project proposal, reading the news online, and monitoring our fantasy football scores.

But recent research has illustrated that all this multitasking might be a myth. Instead of enabling us to reach greater levels of productivity, multitasking technology is actually slowing us down.

According to this March 2010 article from (“Blunt the E-mail Interruption Assault” by Joe Robinson), the average information worker loses 2.1 hours of productivity each day due to interruptions and distractions – checking e-mail, instant messages, BlackBerry and cell phone calls.

Intel estimates that e-mail overload costs big employers over $1 billion a year in lost productivity. Each day, the typical office worker checks e-mail 50 times and sends 77 instant messages – no wonder we can’t get anything done at work.

Whenever you try to multitask – for example, talking on the phone while also typing an e-mail – your brain is forced to switch back and forth along the same cognitive channel. This imposes a “switching cost” on your brain that reduces your focus and can lead to errors.

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that productivity dropped by 40% when people tried to do more than one thing at once. When people try to multitask, the quality of their work suffers. They are more likely to make mistakes, feel frustrated, and experience burnout.

Quiet Time for engineers

This problem can be especially severe for engineers. The harder the task that gets interrupted by multitasking, the harder it is for people to refocus. A study from Microsoft suggests that it takes an average of 15 minutes for a worker to get back to work after an interruption.

In 2000, Leslie Perlow wrote a research study about a high-tech company’s software engineers, who were being interrupted so frequently during the day that their work hours were stretching into nights and weekends. The company responded by implementing a new concept: “Quiet Time.” For four hours each morning, all communication was forbidden, and the engineers could work in peace and actually focus on their projects. In the afternoon, communication could resume.

The results of this quiet, focused effort? Productivity boomed. Engineers no longer had to work insanely long hours and could compartmentalize their days into “work time” and “correspondence/collaboration time.”

Taming the e-mail beast

Another way to combat electronic interruptions is to cut off one of their biggest sources: e-mail. Frequently checking e-mail is a leading cause of interruption and often creates feelings of anxiety: “Why hasn’t he replied to my message yet?” “What’s taking them so long?” “Did I say something wrong in that last message?”

Instead of being chained to your inbox, consider setting a few times each day to check e-mail – ideally four times a day at fixed intervals.

Let technology be your servant, not your master. By letting go of the myth of multitasking, we can stop being tripped up by our electronic devices, and get back to getting work done.

Ben Gran is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa. He is an award-winning blogger who loves to write about careers and the future of work.
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