Over the last 4-5 years I have read many articles (popular as well as academic) that have consistently tried to educate people that multitasking is inefficient, error-prone and negatively impacts the mental health of the so-called multitasker.
However, I still receive job applications with resumes that highlight the multitasking skill of the applicant. So, I chased this a bit, and discovered that even consultants helping people apply for jobs advice them to highlight their multitasking skills (or is it a single skill?). I have also found ‘multi-tasking skill’ as a checklist item in the interview evaluation forms of a few organizations.
Evolution of the Multitasking concept
The word ‘multitasking’ first appeared in the description of the capabilities of an IBM computer (System/ 360) in 1965. People started using the word for human beings in the 1980s as a desirable skill and something that enhances productivity.
So, what is multitasking in human beings?
Human multitasking is the apparent performance by an individual of handling more than one task, or activity, at the same time. The term is derived from computer multitasking.
In the last ten years, multiple controlled experiments and studies have been conducted to understand the concept of multitasking in humans. The research consistently shows that humans cannot pay attention to multiple things at the same time. So they are essentially doing rapid context switching. This increases the total time taken and also increases the errors. People who typically multitask, perform poorly (compared to people who do not typically multitask) even when they are asked to do tasks sequentially.
Multitasking is Not Recommended
So, unless it is absolutely necessary, do not multitask (I am using the word multitasking as is commonly used – actually it is some kind of rapid context switching). And do not take pride in your multitasking. Here are a bunch of reasons:
- It could be dangerous – like talking on the phone while driving, or texting while walking on a busy road. In some professions, trying to simultaneously do more things than what is absolutely required may be fatal to others (surgeons, air traffic controllers, pilots, etc.).
- It is slower and less efficient. According to some studies productivity can reduce by around 40% when you multitask.
- It is error-prone. Research consistently shows that people make more errors while multitasking. So, the tasks that you get “First Time Right” reduce significantly.
- There is no sense of satisfaction of completion, because there are multiple tasks in progress, and the sense completion of one task is overshadowed by the rest of the ‘work-in-progress’.
- Communication becomes unclear and unsatisfactory – in professional and personal life. Because you cannot pay continuous attention to what others are saying. Nor can you convey a complete concept that requires long communication. This could impact relationships too.
For example, because you were on the phone while typing an email, you may mark the email to the wrong persons, or send the email with partial / wrong information – thereby creating confusion that needs further communication and sorting out.
- Multitasking increases stress. When we start to drop balls,and make mistakes our feeling of overwhelm increases, and the stress keeps building.
- Multitasking reduces the IQ (temporarily) by around 10 points – roughly equivalent of missing one night’s sleep – for people who are already sleep deprived or already have a low IQ, it may be a disaster :-).
- Multitasking becomes more difficult with age. As all of us are ageing at the same rate (1 day per day, 1 year per year), we will be able to do less and less of ‘multitasking’ as time flies.
- Multitasking while eating can make you overeat – so it is not aligned with healthy eating.
- Need to multitask may be addictive – you may be soon be unable to focus on a single task for a long duration, even if that is essential (like answering a 2 hour examination without your cellphone or tablet or laptop or TV or favorite book).
Here are some aspects of multitasking for which I could not get very definite answers.
- Does gender play a role in the ability to multitask?
- Are some individuals significantly better than others at multitasking?
- Does multitasking reduce attention span? Or do individuals who lack attention span typically tend to multitask?
- Can we train people to be good at multitasking?
- Are there some combination of tasks that are conducive to multitasking? What are their characteristics? (For example – it is perfectly natural to speak to someone seated in a car while you are driving, but not to speak on the cellphone; one can listen to music and answer emails, but one cannot cook while answering emails).
Please feel free to share your views, experiences, and queries, using the “comments” feature available. You may also forward the link to this post to your friends, colleagues, and anyone else who may be interested.
Nothing Official About It! – The views presented above are in no manner reflective of the official views of any organization, community, group, institute, or association. They may not even be the official views of the author :-).