While writing an article recently on productivity for a corporate client, I came across some research pointing to the dangers of multitasking. The findings confirmed what many of us have always believed: Multitasking is worse than unhelpful in terms of productivity. It actually makes everything we do take longer, and it lowers the quality of our work.
But is that the whole story? Maybe not.
First, the bad news for multitasking. In a Psychology Today article, “The True Cost of Multi-Tasking,” behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk, PhD, argues that the concept of mutlitasking itself is a myth, because we can’t actually perform more than one high-order cognitive task at a time. (At least not without making a lot of stupid mistakes.)
Dr. Weinschenk claims what we describe as multitasking is more like “task-switching,” where we move constantly from one open task to another, and back, and back again. She then argues that jumping around like this results in more errors than if we simply worked on a single task, without interruption, to completion. She also claims that the act of constantly switching back and forth can sap 40% of our overall productivity. In other words, when we multitask we’re not faster — we’re slower! (And stupider.)
This makes intuitive sense. If you’ve ever tried to review a document while you’re on a conference call, you know how difficult it is to handle either task well. And you’ve probably had the experience of having to go back through the document again, after the call, because you didn’t fully grasp what you were reading the first time. How much could you have comprehended, after all? You were also half-listening to a phone conversation.
So much for multitasking, right?
In fact, that was going to be the basis for this article. I had hoped to share with you what I learned about the dangers of multitasking. My original title for this piece was going to be, “If you knew this, you’d stop multitasking right away.”
But at the same time I was working on the productivity article for my client, I was also reading the book The Age of the Infovore, by economist Tyler Cowen. (Side note: When I say “at the same time” here, I don’t mean I was literally working on an article and simultaneously reading a book. That would be multitasking, and apparently impossible. I mean during the same several-day timeframe.)
Cowen’s argument is that with information, communications and entertainment now coming at us constantly, multitasking is a way for us to keep some form of control over the inputs — essentially to build a personal productivity play list that is unique to ourselves. As Cowen puts it:
“The emotional power of our personal blends is potent, and they make work, and learning, a lot more fun. Multitasking is, in part, a strategy to keep ourselves interested.”
In other words, for Cowen, the key distinction is control. If you’re constantly being pulled in several directions at once, forced to simultaneously tackle several intellectually demanding projects that someone else (like your boss) dictates for you, you’re unlikely to succeed at any of them. That’s the sort of multitasking that no one can handle well.
But if you’re choosing which three or five projects to move among simultaneously, Cowen argues, that’s the sort of multitasking that can make you more productive. At any given moment, you’re focusing (if indeed focusing is the right word, in the midst of a multitasking frenzy) on the task that seems most important, urgent or interesting to you.
Cowen then makes an interesting point: If these claims were accurate, that multitasking lowers our ability to successfully complete our work, then “multitasking would disappear pretty rapidly as a way of getting things done.”
So, who’s right?
I still lean toward Dr. Weinschenk’s view — multitasking causes more harm — for a few reasons:
1) In a discussion about effects on cognition and mental ability, you’ve got to defer to the psychologist over the economist, right?
But that’s not entirely satisfying. Cowen could be right. Perhaps in the age of Google and the Internet-connected smartphone, we are all getting better at processing multiple streams of information simultaneously, because we have to. And if that’s true, then maybe we can multitask higher-order mental tasks more successfully than we could have 20 years ago. Still, though…
2) The Psychology Today view on multitasking as counterproductive makes a lot more intuitive sense. It also tracks with experience, at least with mine. I know I’m much more error-prone when I’m trying to do three things at once. Aren’t you?
3) I’ve also found that our best insights, best ideas and best work generally kick in only after a prolonged period of uninterrupted time spent on a given project. And you rarely get to that point if you’re constantly switching to another task. In other words, even if we can “finish” our jobs while task-switching, our work will probably be more superficial.
But Cowen’s view is much more optimistic, and maybe that’s why I find it appealing. Wouldn’t it be great to know that one positive side effect of our increasingly complex and fast-paced work in the digital age is that it’s actually making us better at getting a lot of things done at once?
I wish that were true. But I’m not sure. And I’ve given, oh, at least 75 percent of my attention to this topic.
What do you think? Is multitasking as bad as I tend to think it is, something to be avoided in favor of what I call “single-tasking?” Or are we getting better, to the point where we can actually conquer multiple higher-order tasks at the same time?
Please share your thoughts. (Just not while you’re on a conference call.)