Multitasking Can Increase Stress – But Not Productivity

Posted By Terri Williams on March 13, 2017 at 8:39 am
Multitasking Can Increase Stress – But Not Productivity

College students and employees who believe that multitasking can improve productivity levels need look no further to dispel this idea than the statistics on accidents caused by distracted driving. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight people are killed, and 1,161 are injured every day because of distracted drivers who take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel, or their minds off the task at hand.

Daydreaming, reading or sending a text message, eating, applying makeup, reaching into the backseat, engaging in a lively conversation or heated debate – the list of driver multitasking goes on and on.

A Stanford University study found that people who admit frequent multitasking – and consider themselves experts at the practice – are so accustomed to not devoting their full attention to a task that they actually become unable to distinguish between important and irrelevant information. And although they shift back and forth mentally, it takes them considerably longer to focus on the current task. In fact, even when they aren’t multitasking, they find it difficult to focus.

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multitasking electronically (for example, talking on the phone while also sending an email) affects the brain worse than smoking marijuana or failing to get a good night’s sleep. These digital multitaskers experienced a temporary 10-point IQ drop.

Why humans like to multitask

“In a survey by The Creative Group, more than half (57 percent) of executives said they feel multitasking improves productivity; only 16 percent said it hinders their ability to work efficiently, “Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group, tells GoodCall®. “But juggling too many responsibilities at once can be detrimental, leading to unnecessary errors and stress.”

In spite of the research revealing the negative effects of multitasking, why do people continue to think they’re being productive when they juggle various tasks?

Paul Eslinger is a professor of neurology, neural & behavioral sciences at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Eslinger tells GoodCall®, “The appeal of multitasking is that we will be more efficient, get more done, feel busier, and finish our work quicker – in short be and feel more productive.”

But he says there are two other contributing factors. “The human brain is also attuned to discovery and novelty – hence, switching to new information is naturally attractive. And besides having a natural tendency to multitask, Eslinger believes that our culture encourages this practice, particularly when it comes to creativity.

Disadvantages/dangers of multitasking

Earl K. Miller, Ph.D. a neuroscience professor in the Picower Institute for Learning at MIT, tells GoodCall® that multitasking is counterproductive because contrary to what people want to believe, they’re not really multitasking at all. “You don’t really multitask – you switch between the tasks.”

At first glance, that might not sound so bad, but Miller explains, “You spend time switching tasks and backtracking instead of really thinking – in other words, you’re actually wasting time.”

According to Eslinger, sometimes, multitasking is “an insidious addiction.” Whether it’s a compulsion or an obsession, the effects are detrimental. “When we multitask, the human brain must distribute a limited pool of attention to different senses and task-related mindsets.”

In addition to wasting energy, Eslinger says there are two important drawbacks:

  • Interference effects occur between these mindsets easily.
  • Errors increase and response speed decreases.

“Multitasking trade-off effects also show that ‘depth of cognitive processing’ is more shallow, so that later retention and conceptual understanding is much more limited,” Eslinger explains. That’s because memory retention, a deep level of cognitive processing, and a strong degree of conceptual analysis are all dependent on the ability to focus attention.

“The most effective strategy appears to be switching among tasks when there is a natural break or completion of key steps,” Eslinger says. “This allows the refreshing of attention while minimizing errors and interference effects.”

Advice for managing multitasking

Sometimes, giving a task your undivided attention may not be an option. In these situations, Domeyer offer the following tips:

  • Prioritize. Spend 10 minutes at the beginning of each day identifying your most important and time-sensitive to-dos. Then, aim to knock out items in order, one by one.
  • Limit distractions. Turn off your email alerts and mobile devices, and avoid diving into new requests unless they’re truly urgent.
  • Don’t multitask during meetings. It’s bad etiquette and can harm your relationships with colleagues, who may feel disrespected by your lack of courtesy and involvement. Zoning out can lead you to miss important information, too.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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