There's No Such Thing as Multitasking

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Software professionals are multitaskers. Some are better at multitasking than others, but everyone does it because, after all, what choice do you have if you want to get everything done?

The only thing wrong with this scenario, according to Jim Taylor, writing in Computerworld, is that there’s no such thing as multitasking. It’s a myth that’s come about to make people feel more productive. Multitasking is possible, according to Taylor, only if one of two conditions are met: One of the tasks has to be so well learned that you can do it automatically, such as driving, or the tasks have to involve different types of brain processing, such as reading while listening to music. What you are actually doing isn’t multitasking, but serial tasking—shifting from one task to another to another in rapid succession. So, you’re not carrying out the various tasks simultaneously; you’re shifting between them rapidly.

In fact, according to research reported by the American Psychological Association (APA), doing more than one task at a time actually takes a toll on productivity. This is especially the case if the tasks are complex, because the brain is not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. As a result, every time you switch tasks, you lose time and the consequences can be significant, as the APA notes:

For example, losing just a half-second of time to task switching can make a life-or-death difference for a driver on a cell phone traveling at 30 mph. During the time the driver is not totally focused on driving the car, it can travel far enough to crash into an obstacle that might otherwise have been avoided.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that heavy multitaskers—especially those who are very confident of their abilities—are worse at multitasking than most people. A study by Stanford University psychology professor Clifford Nass found that self-described multitaskers performed much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involved distraction than did people who said they preferred to focus on single tasks.

What does this mean in the workplace? Simple. Multitasking takes a toll on the quality of the work done. As management consultant Johanna Rothman points out, multitasking on the job entails context-switching, and context-switching costs in time and imperfection. Rothman points out that “we do not perfectly allocate our time first to one task and then to another,” and she admonishes managers not to ask or expect employees to multitask.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.