Talking on your cell phone, listening to a podcast, viewing a report on your e-reader … all while careening down the highway at top speed: Have you ever taken multitasking to this level? I hope not, because it’s not productive and it’s potentially disastrous. This is an extreme example, but if you really think you can multitask and do lots of things well, think again.
Research has shown there are perils to multitasking that we may not realize. It hampers creativity — creative thinking decreases significantly when people have highly fragmented days with many activities, meetings, discussions, and so on. It raises anxiety — in lab settings, researchers found subjects asked to multitask show higher levels of stress hormones. A Reuter’s survey found two-thirds of respondents reported that multitasking decreased their job satisfaction. It slows us down, too. Multitasking participants completing tasks took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors compared with those who completed one task at a time. Perhaps multitasking is merely procrastination in disguise.
So why do we do it? Well, multitasking can be addicting. Research shows it spikes dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Every type of reward that has been studied increases levels of dopamine. But is a dopamine rush worth the costs in quality, time, stress, and job satisfaction?
For some basic tasks, it’s probably easy to do a couple in parallel, because they are easy. But it’s probably wise to recognize that some tasks require our full attention. We need to get better about multitasking where it makes sense, switching from one task to another when we have to, and focusing on one thing as much as possible for the best results. See you there.
P.S. I spoke on this topic during my presentation, “Working in a Complex Organization,” at the P&S Council Professional Development Conference, April 2013.