Many job ads include a requirement for multitasking proficiency, in the mistaken belief that performing multiple tasks simultaneously leads to higher productivity. Quite the opposite.
While employed at a large defense contractor a few years ago, I participated in a multitasking test that consisted of placing small balls in a certain order. When that task was competed we had to do a second, similar task. Each task took just a few minutes to complete, with no errors. Then we had to start one of the tasks and were periodically interrupted to perform the other task, back and forth until they were both completed. Surprisingly it took many times longer to complete the “multitask” than both tasks individually, and also resulted in many errors.
According to a Forbes Nov 2014 article, Dr JoAnn Deak, a noted educator and psychologist, says the belief that engaging in several tasks at once means we are more productive is a myth. Instead of saving time, multitasking not only takes longer but also makes mistakes more likely. She says the brain is only able to focus deeply on one task at a time. And not only that, trying to do too many things at once causes the brain to lose the capacity for deep thinking altogether. (A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked experienced IQ score declines that were similar to smoking marijuana or staying up all night. IQs for multitasking men dropped to the average range of an 8-year-old child.)
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“When you try to multitask, in the short-term it doubles the amount of time it takes to do a task and it usually at least doubles the number of mistakes,” she says.
According to a Dr. Sanjay Gupta CNN report, our brains on multitasking aren’t nearly as good as we think they are. Let’s say you’re working on an activity over here, on the right side of the brain, and suddenly you’re trying to multitask another activity, like talking on the phone. You’re not actually doing both activities at the same time; in fact, you’re now diverting your attention from one part of your brain to another part of your brain. That takes time; that takes resources; that takes brain cells.
However, about 2% of the population are “super multitaskers”. It’s sort of a genetic gift and there have been studies that show women are generally better at multitasking than men. Also, people who think they are the best at multitasking are almost always in fact the worst, according to Dr. Gupta.
Legislators recognize this limitation when they outlaw texting while driving. I once fired my office manager for violating my rule on multitasking.
If you want to be convinced as to the folly of multitasking, go to Google and search for “multitasking tests” and take one or more of them.