Have you ever heard, “If you want a job done, ask a busy person”? Sometimes it’s true that the busiest people are the most productive. But before you assign your company’s next big writing project to the busiest person on your team, take a closer look. Is that person effective at getting things done, or is s/he just good at looking busy?
Instead of focusing on one task until it’s completed, multitaskers work on many duties at the same time with the expectation of doing them all equally well and quickly. However, research shows that for complex tasks (such as writing), multitasking actually harms both speed and quality of work.
Driven to distractionIn this digital age, we're all guilty of spending a good amount of time multitasking. In fact, as I’ve written this article I've checked email once and LinkedIn twice. Most science, engineering, and technology professionals carry a phone, tablet, or laptop with them and check them all regularly. With the explosion of digital devices and resources, multitasking has become second nature and an integral part of our work and life habits.
But more isn’t always better. Doing many activities at once doesn’t mean each task is receiving the attention and brain power it deserves. And it doesn’t mean you should do more at once. In fact, studies show that constant multitasking can have serious personal and professional consequences.
Lost productivity — When you switch between multiple complicated tasks, one of the most significant effects is loss of productivity. In an extensive review of multitasking research, the American Psychological Association suggests that task switching can reduce productivity up to 40%. It takes our brains time to catch up in between each switch, and that transition time can become significant when we switch repeatedly between tasks.
Lower quality — In addition, those transitions are opportunities to introduce error. Multitasking creates distraction, and doing a great job becomes more difficult when you’re distracted. The research paper “Cognitive control in media multitaskers” argues that frequent media multitaskers are easily distracted by the multiple streams of media they’re consuming. However, those who infrequently multitask are more effective at focusing. The more often you multitask, the more distracted you are: the more distracted you are, the more likely you are to make mistakes and harm the quality of your work.
Reduced learning — If maintaining high productivity and doing a good job while multitasking are nearly impossible, it’s no wonder multitasking affects our ability to learn new things, too. Researchers at California State University Dominguez Hills studied how young adults learn in the face of a multitude of digital distractions. “Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying” reveals that a majority of adolescents study, learn, and complete homework while engaging in multitasking. Students who switched tasks most frequently had lower grade point averages, retained less information, and took longer to complete tasks.
Changes in brain structure — If these reasons alone aren’t enough to make you wary of multitasking, emerging research finds that this behavior is linked to changes in the areas of the brain that govern cognitive control. One study, published in the journal PLOS One, noted that heavy multitaskers tend to have decreased cognitive control and difficulty with socio-emotional regulation. The study examined the density of gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex and found that with heavy media multitasking, that section of the brain is less dense than in subjects who don’t frequently multitask.
Unlearn what you have learned
Although distractions seem to be everywhere, multitasking behaviors can be unlearned, just as any other bad habit can.
Next time you and your team have a writing project or are working toward a deadline, try deliberately eliminating distractions to encourage focus.
- Work in the morning – Our concentration and focus abilities are much stronger after a good night’s rest.
- Commit to unplugging – Set a timer, close your apps and email, and don’t check them until your allotted “work” time is up.
- Set boundaries – If you’re in a meeting, ask your teammates to turn off their devices until the work is done.
- Close the door – Set aside time away from distractions and give your brain the chance to really focus on the task at hand.