Three Ways that Multitasking Hurts Your Productivity

Last Updated Oct 8, 2009 8:28 PM EDT

We live in an age of multitasking. As I'm writing this, I have two email programs open and the news is on (though muted) in the background, so I can occasionally look up and digest a couple of headlines. This, I believe, is how most of us work. There's simply too much going on to concentrate on one task at a time.

But the question is: Does this multitasking mindset affect the quality of our work? Though I know plenty of people who boast about being able to compose the perfect email while carrying on a telephone conversation and eating their lunch at the same time, new research says that multitasking may lead us nowhere fast.

According to research conducted by Stanford professors Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagner, multitaskers fall short of their non-multitasking peers in three key areas:
  • Filtering out irrelevant details: In an experiment, the researchers asked participants to ignore certain pieces of data. The non-jugglers had no problem following this instruction, while the multitaskers could not filter out this information and, as a result, performed poorly.
  • Remembering information: Of an experiment asking people to remember a sequence of letters, Ophir said in a Stanford press release, "The low multitaskers did great. The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains."
  • Switching between tasks: Though this is what multitasking is all about, those who do so regularly have trouble focusing on the purpose and information associated with each discreet undertaking. Said Ophir, "They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing. They can't keep things separate in their minds."
The researchers are unsure whether "chronic" multitasking is a symptom of an innate inability to focus, or if people who multitask too much simply lose their ability to concentrate.

Either way, it seemed like a good idea to shut off the television and logout from my email as I finished writing this, though I'm sure I'll be tempted to multitask again in the near future. Where do you stand on multitasking: is it an important skill to have in today's fast-paced workplace, or simply a way of ensuring that we don't perform up to our potentials?

Image courtesy of Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com, CC 2.0
  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.

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