ARTICLE: “Multi-tasking is Counterproductive: Shifting Mental Gears Downshifts Productivity”

What are you doing right now while you’re glancing through this article? Monitoring a screen for stock figures? Ordering office supplies on-line? Installing a new piece of software? Carrying on Instant Message conversations with three co-workers? Eating your lunch while working on a proposal? If you’re like most professionals today, you’re probably multitasking. As technology increasingly tempts people to attempt several things at once, many have embraced multitasking as a valid way of increasing productivity. Or maybe it’s a post-layoff corporate assumption that the few can be made to do the work of many.

Regardless, I’d like to clear up a couple myths. Most people think that multitasking is “doing more than one thing at a time,” but it’s really switching back and forth very quickly between tasks. The conscious mind is actually incapable of doing more than one thing at a time. For example, let’s say you’re typing an email and a co-worker walks in and starts talking to you. Can you give the same amount of attention to constructing the email as you can to listening to the person? Of course not. One or the other loses your focus.

Another myth is that multi-tasking allows you to increase your efficiency and productivity by working more quickly. Not so, according to newly released results of a new scientific study in multitasking. Scientists have discovered some hidden costs of what they call “task switching.” The research indicates that multitasking, in fact, reduces productivity.

Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D., of the Federal Aviation Administration, and David Meyer, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D., both at the University of Michigan, describe their research in the August 2001 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, published by the American Psychological Association (APA). They determined that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. The time loss (called “time cost”) was even greater when the complexity and unfamiliarity of the task increased. The scientists estimated that not being able to concentrate for even ten minutes at a time may cost a company as much as 20 to 40 percent in terms of potential efficiency lost, or the “time cost of switching,” as these researchers call it.

To explain why this happens, you have to understand the way the brain works. When you toggle back and forth between activities, whether its talking on the cell phone while driving, using different computer programs, or writing an email while you’re trying to have a conversation with a co-worker, you’re using your “executive control” process, which is basically your mental CEO. You’ve got to (1) want to switch tasks (called goal shifting: “I want to do this now instead of that”), you’ve got to (2) make the switch (called rule activation: “I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”), and then you’ve got to (3) get warmed up on what you switch to or switched back to. For example, let’s say you’re banging away on a report on Word. Then the phone rings and you answer it. When you hang up, there is a lag when you return to your document where you say, “Okay, where was I?” and get your train of thought back. In effect, you briefly get “writer’s block” as you go from one task to the other.

Rule activation itself takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second, which can add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem more efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end. For example, Meyer points out, a mere half second of time lost to task switching can mean the difference between life and death for a driver using a cell phone, because during the time that the car is not totally under control, it can travel far enough to crash into obstacles the driver might have otherwise avoided.

So how do you stop multitasking and start focusing instead? Here are five ideas to get you started:

1. Batch. Email will kill your concentration. We have an almost obsessive-compulsive love affair with email. We’re dying of curiosity and want to read each one as it arrives. Instead, turn off the notification on your email program that indicates you’ve got mail. Set aside a specific number of times per day that you will check and deal with your email. Enforce the same schedule on yourself each day, so that you aren’t distracted by constant email and can concentrate on the task at hand. I check mine first thing in the morning, mid-morning, after lunch, and about an hour before I leave for the day.

2. Concentrate. Figure out what thoughts are distracting you and claiming your focus. Write out the following list: (1) Things I’m doing that I want to (satisfying to you), (2) Things I’m doing that I don’t want to (things you are tolerating), (3) Things I’m not doing that I want to (things that are missing), and (4) Things I’m not doing that I don’t want to (successfully keeping out of my life). I suggest that you focus on items 2 and 3 as a way of self-diagnosing the problems in your life. Clear up these areas, and the voices in your head won’t bother you as much. 

3. Prioritize. Don’t get sidelined by interruptions. If you’re working on the last-minute details of a report for a meeting that starts in 30 minutes, don’t accept a drop-in visitor’s request to “ask you something really quick.” When people say, “Gotta minute?” they never mean just one. Deflect the interruption by saying, “Hi Donna (don’t pause) I really want to talk with you about this AND I’m preparing for a meeting that begins in just a few minutes. Can I call you at 3:00?” If you MUST be distracted by a high-priority or emergency request, hold up your pointer finger (a universal way of saying “just a minute”), grab a sticky note, record your VERY LAST thought on where you were on the project, and stick it to your file or paper or screen. After the interruption, when you return to your work, you can pick right back up where you left off without thinking, “Now, where was I?”

4. Control Self-Interruption and Blurting Through Communication Logs. Many times you interrupt yourself. You’re sitting at our desk, concentrating on an important project, when all of a sudden, your brain start talking to you. “Oh, I need to tell Chris this,” and you interrupt yourself to get up (or pick up the phone or dash off an email) to “blurt” out whatever it was we were thinking about so you don’t “lose” it. Instead, get yourself a 3-ring binder, some loose-leaf paper, and A-Z tabs. Create a sheet of paper for each person with whom you communicate frequently. When your brain reminds you of something, simply turn to that person’s communication log, filed alphabetically behind their last name in the tabs. Jot down the thought or idea and go right back to what you were doing. When that person’s log has several thoughts “saved-up,” then call the person and set up a meeting or phone conference to review the items you’ve come up with.

5. Use Memory Tools. When something pops up into your brain, you MUST write it down somewhere. If you don’t, your brain will continue to serve its main function by reminding you again…and again…and again. That’s called memory…it’s a good thing! But if you don’t want to keep experiencing the same distracting thought over and over again, simply record the idea in the proper place. Writing something down gives your brain “resolution,” and your brain actually thinks you “did” it. Pretty neat, huh? The most important tools to use for this purpose are (1) Daily to-do lists (or the Outlook Task Pad), and (2) a “master” task list. If the thought is something that has to be done on a certain day, write it down on that day’s daily to-do list. If you use Outlook, create a new Task (with the day you need to work on the task as the “start date”). If it’s not for today, write it on a master to-do list, or memory list, which is just a running list of all the things you want to remember to do at some point, but you’re not yet ready to schedule or put on a daily plan. In Outlook, you would simply leave the “start” and “due” dates blank, and review activities with no due date each month to decide which ones are ready to have a “start date” added.

I dare you to give yourself one week to practice each of these five tips and see how much better you will be able to focus at the end of the five weeks! Email me and tell me how it goes. Just remember what Clint Eastwood said at the end of one of his ‘Dirty Harry’ movies: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” Here’s to an end of multitasking!

© 2001 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at