Is Multitasking a Productivity Killer?

Multitasking is a bit of a misnomer, since our brains really aren’t capable of doing more than one thing at a time. According to Elizabeth Poposki, assistant professor of psychology in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, “Neuroscientists tell us that the human brain is incapable of doing two things at once. What we do when we multitask is switch back and forth between tasks.” In other words, we think we’re doing multiple thingsĀ  at once, but we are really just switching between several activities quickly.

In a recent NPR Science Friday interview, Dr. Christopher Chabris, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Union College, offers a similar position: “It’s a fallacy that we’re able to multitask and do two or three or four or five things just as well as we could do them if we did them one at a time. The problem is that we don’t really get the sense of how badly we’re performing these multiple tasks at once, and we think we’re doing them just fine.” I know plenty of people who claim to be great multitaskers, but I wonder how much of that is perception vs. reality.

I’m a bit of a productivity nut, and I actually take a few minutes at the end of each day to jot down a few things that I accomplished. This helps me make sure that I really am getting work done and being productive, and it gives me a point of reference that I can use later for status reports or questions about my work. From this experience, I know that I get much more work done when I stay focused on the task at hand by working in chunks to complete one thing at a time. When I try to do multiple things at once, I still get everything done eventually, but the tasks aren’t completed as quickly and quality often suffers as a result.

Your Homework Experiment

  • Take two periods of time (maybe four-hour or two-hour periods of time) where you plan to do similar work.
  • In one time period, multitask as much as you want.
  • In the other time period, turn off Twitter, email and other distractions to focus on one task at a time (working in chunks)
  • After you finish each period, write down everything that you completed along with a quick quality assessment of the output.

Which time period allowed you to get the largest amount of work done?

Photo by Flickr user Ryan Ritchie used under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

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