by Dr Barbara Tey

 “To do two things at once is to do neither.” 
                                                                        ~ Publilius

Multitasking lady with many handsThere was a time in corporate history that bosses expected their staff to multitask. Multitasking was thought to be a desirable managerial competency. It was even a popular buzzword. After all, our human brains are superior to computers; so if computers can multitask, why can’t we?

The truth is, we can’t. Bosses in today’s knowledge era should not embarrass themselves by trying to compel their staff to multitask because the latest scientific evidence against multitasking is freely accessible online. Tony Schwartz, who doesn’t believe in multitasking, says that one of the worst things a boss can do is to ask his staff to constantly look out for emails from him, even while they’re working on other things. [The irony is that some bosses detest us checking our phones while they speak during a meeting, but they do the same – in the name of multitasking – when others are speaking.]

Psychiatrist Dr Edward M. Hallowell describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” Using our PCs as an analogy, neuro-psychologist William Stixrud, PhD, points out that although you may have several screens open on your desktop, you are able to think about only one at a time.

Even without the scientific data at your disposal, deep down you must have sensed that multitasking was ineffective. Try reading and replying emails when listening to an audio presentation by Steven Covey. At best, you find yourself missing a few nuggets from Covey while completing your email message without event. At worst, you find that while you were immersed in Covey’s gems, you committed a cringe-worthy error in your email that will now be immortalized in cyberspace till Armageddon strikes.

Switches and bottlenecks
But what about the employee who happily listens to music while writing his report? Well, you can be sure that at any one specific time, his mind is either focused on the music or on the report, but not both. Though it may seem like he’s able to focus on both at once, in reality his brain merely switches back and forth between the two tasks. This “switching time” happens so quickly and unconsciously that most people don’t realize it happening. Nevertheless switching time, no matter how brief, still adds up. Researcher David Meyer, PhD, estimates that switching time could increase the duration taken to complete your primary task by an average of 25 percent.

Not only does it take longer to complete your tasks, the quality of at least one of the tasks will suffer. Meyer attests that more mistakes are made and the time taken therefore increases further – often even doubling – compared to if the tasks were done sequentially. The extra time is due to the brain’s natural compulsion to restart and refocus.

In addition, psychologist René Marois, PhD, has discovered that the brain exhibits what he calls a “response selection bottleneck” when performing several tasks at a time. Since the brain must decide which activity is most important, it takes up extra time.

In the field of learning and education, Richard E. Mayer, PhD, and Roxana Moreno, PhD, who have extensively studied the phenomenon of cognitive load in multimedia learning, concluded that it is difficult and most likely impossible to learn new information while multitasking. Furthermore, Reynol Junco, D.Ed, and Shelia R. Cotton, PhD, who examined the effect of multitasking on academic success, found that students who multitasked more often reported more problems with their academic work.

Of course, there are scientists who believe that we can train our brains to multitask. However, the evidence for this is not conclusive. No doubt we can train people to perform simultaneous tasks more efficiently, but that’s because those people were totally unfamiliar with the tasks in the first place, hence significant improvement could easily be gained after training.

Further reading
If you wish to delve into the technicalities of multitasking, you might be interested to readThe Multitasking Mind (Oxford University Press, 2010). The authors, Associate Professor Dario D. Salvucci and Professor Niels A. Taatgen, explain the meaning of concurrent multitasking(doing multiple tasks at once), sequential multitasking (interrupting and resuming tasks), and multitask skill acquisition (learning and practising multiple tasks). The authors propose the Theory of Threaded Cognition, in which they posit that all tasks can operate in parallel, but that they have to share cognitive resources, which may be perceptual, motor or central. By combining the Theory of Threaded Cognition with ACT-R (Adaptive Control of Thought – Rational, a cognitive architecture developed by John Robert Anderson et al., 2004), Salvucci and Taatgen are able to predict whether there will be interference when two tasks are done together, or whether the two tasks can be combined without the need for extra coordination.

Leaders, do yourselves and your people a favour: Unmask multitasking for its overrated claims, and don’t even use the word in the office unless you’re referring to the computer.