The myth of multi-tasking

Multi-tasking might look impressive, but it's often just a muddle-headed displacement activity.

by Helen Kirwan-Taylor
Last Updated: 04 Jul 2016

Take a minute to observe your colleagues. Are they tweeting while the boss talks to them from across the room? Holding a meeting while checking their BlackBerry? Speaking on the phone as they send an e-mail? With redundancies, squeezed budgets and job insecurity, doing several things at the same time would seem to make sense. At the very least, it pays to look busy.

And then there's the kudos - multi-tasking could do wonders for your promotion prospects. Who isn't in awe of the person who can speed-read a report, listen in on a meeting and keep an eye on their e-mails at the same time?

Multi-tasking works, right? Wrong. Very wrong. The great multi-taskers of our time turn out to be the ones who remember nothing and get the least done. This is the shocking conclusion of Stanford University researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagner, who published their findings in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers studied 262 college students, dividing them into heavy multi-taskers and light multi-taskers, and comparing the two groups on such criteria as memory, ability to switch from one task to another, and being able to focus on one particular task. It was found that people who did a lot of multi-tasking couldn't focus at all. 'They're suckers for irrelevancy,' says Nass, 'everything distracts them.'

In one task, testing ability to ignore irrelevant information, they showed the students a group of red and blue rectangles, and asked them to ignore the blue ones; they then blanked all the rectangles out, showed them again and asked if any of the red ones had been removed. The researchers assumed that frequent multi-taskers would do better. Not at all. 'They were much worse,' says Nass. 'The high multi-taskers couldn't ignore the blue rectangles. They love stuff that doesn't matter.'

The last thing required of the students was to switch from one task to another by classifying a letter as a vowel or consonant, or a number as even or odd. The heavy multi-taskers took longer to make the switch from words to numbers. This, says Nass, is because they are always thinking about the tasks they are not doing. The fact that heavy multi-taskers can't ignore things prompted Nass to suspect they might have strong memories. Once again, expectations were confounded.

'They can't keep things separate in their minds,' he says. The researchers are still studying whether chronic multi-taskers are born with an inability to concentrate or damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in too much at once. What they do know is that the minds of multi-taskers are not working as well as they could be - probably far less well than the pensioner who reads one newspaper at a time ...

'We really don't know what is happening - other than that they seem to like to be flooded with information,' adds Nass. 'It's almost as if they prefer to scan the environment and look for new information rather than ponder what they have. We don't know if there are advantages to this, but all we can say is: multi-taskers are lousy at multi-tasking.'

The study has interested many attention deficit disorder (ADD) experts, who believe that the constant alternating bursts of attention and interruption foisted upon us by technology are leading to a mild version of ADD, attention deficit trait), and hindering the things we seek the most: productivity and creativity. The constant need to graze on what's coming in by text, e-mail, the intranet, blog, Twitter or Facebook is retraining the mind to think in interrupted sharp bites (which are not chewed or digested).

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, an expert on ADD and author of CrazyBusy (Ballantine), has been brought into offices worldwide to try to encourage workers to think more and multi-task less. 'It's important to define things,' he says. 'We do multi-tasking all the time, but the way people use it today implies we are focusing on several things at once. That is cognitively impossible. If the concept is insipid, OK; but if it's a physics lecture, no way. Multi-tasking lowers the monotony of boring tasks such as unloading the dishwasher, feeding the dog and stirring the porridge. You have to be adept in a way.'

Professional multi-taskers who use the latest gadgets to cut corners and save time are missing the point. 'What you give up when you work like that is depth,' says Hallowell. 'You give up the capacity to reflect, and any depth of emotion. You just turn yourself into a human data-processor exponentially bigger than it was 10 years ago.' Hallowell calls it 'screen sucking'. 'People check their e-mails all the time. We can't let it go - but it's a bad diversion, because what you're doing is avoiding the hard work. It's spinning wheels.'

Hallowell was called in to get traders to spend less time perusing their screens and more time thinking about the investments they wanted to make. 'I told them how the thinking processes were different in focused thinking and screen sucking, but they couldn't stop. Eventually, we had to move the Bloomberg screens.'

Not getting caught up in petty multi-tasking requires a strategy and a certain degree of will. Derek Day of branding consultancy PassionBrand rigorously avoids chopping up the use of his mind. 'Interruptions are a disaster for idea growth,' he says. 'They punctuate the creative crescendo: that intense, skin-tingling trajectory that starts when you first have, not really an idea, but a fragment, a hint, a note, a beat; and you ponder it and manipulate it in your mind, and it swells and takes on more texture and becomes more insistent; and it's a mutually reinforcing momentum that you're swept into, where you add more to it and it screams back to you and it's kind of organic, orgasmic even, with a real climactic end in sight, swelling and growing, and then ... ping! The e-mail or text or phone cuts it dead and you're back to the beginning and it will have to start all over again, or not - probably not.'

Other strategies include jogging without the mobile. Says Day: 'I have no problem remembering ideas that are generous enough to come over a good 5k run in the open air. You have to escape the office and the technology. I am being lobbied hard by my business partner, also my wife, to carry a BlackBerry, and I will probably succumb one dark day, but for now, I maintain a fierce resistance: it will make me more effective at responding to clients and less fertile at creating the ideas they pay me for.'

Multi-tasking feels good because it releases dopamine. So, like all addictions, it gives us a short hit (as well as an erroneous sense of accomplishment). 'Flow', on the other hand, where we lose ourselves in thought, is drawn from the cerebral cortex and leads to feelings of progress and pleasure. 'That's quite a difference from screen sucking, which comes from the cerebellum,' says Hallowell. One theory for the belief that multi-tasking is no tasking at all is that it takes place in the shallow front part of the brain - the one least associated with cognitive intelligence.

Hallowell predicts a rise in ADD-type behaviour: 'You will get the worst traits: impulsivity, irritability, ineffectiveness - and being disorganised without the creativity or originality,' he says. What is the end result? 'We'll get stupid. We'll lose our ability to be innovative or adapt.'

He's right. A study for HP reported that IQ scores of knowledge workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls fell from their normal level by an average 10 points: twice the decline recorded for smoking marijuana.

Multi-tasking is mostly about trying to keep up. With ever more outlets from which to learn things, many workers are feeling 'flooded', and unable to concentrate on anything at all. Harley Street psychiatrist Theodore Soutzos says he sees adults with ADD-like symptoms asking for Ritalin prescriptions to keep up with the volume of information they're meant to absorb.

According to a 2008 AOL survey of 4,000 e-mail users, 46% admitted to being addicted (15% even checked it in church). Twenty-six percent of e-mail users have even declared or are considering e-mail bankruptcy (deleting all your e-mails at once). One Microsoft study found it takes 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption by e-mail.

According to Nathan Zeldes, president of the Oregon-based Information Overload Research Group, the cost of time lost recovering from informational interruptions is $1bn. Already, companies are on the alert for new technologies to prevent old technologies from bothering you, such as a Gmail link designed by Google that, when clicked, turns your page grey and displays the message 'Break time! Take a walk, get some real work done. We'll be back in 15 minutes'. Offices are coming up with e-mail bans, but at the moment it's about who's in control.

Jon Treanor, CEO of Conduit Partners, a company that helps commercialise start-up technology companies, has to work hard to keep himself from succumbing to screen sucking and multi-tasking all day. 'I come from a media background. I'm a gadget person, but I get 150 e-mails a day, not counting the spam.' Treanor's answer was to go low-tech: by moving into a thatched cottage in Oxfordshire with poor reception and slow broadband, he has turned his house into a call-screening centre.

'The important people know my number,' he says. When he gets five minutes up the road, his phone starts to ring with voicemail messages. 'At least this way I am in charge of who I call back,' he says.

Treanor used to get up at 5am to clear his e-mails, and still often has them rolling in at 11pm (his staff work remotely and often at night). To wean himself off them altogether, he has agreed to participate in a three-part BBC series called The Silence and will be spending two weeks in silent monasteries in Sussex and Wales.

There are many tomes available that offer advice for today's malaise. Some say you should limit checking your e-mails to twice a day (and somehow pack it all into five sentences), or read only those documents with a high priority attachment (this assumes that your computer understands you well). The truth is, we have all become addicted to multi-tasking and, as with any other addiction, withdrawal is unpleasant. Multi-tasking feels good because it gives us the illusion that we're working - when in fact we're multi-tasking not to work.

A word of caution for those who can't abandon their BlackBerry for even a nano-second. Hallowell worked with senior executives who were in the middle of a big deal. One side cleaned up, but 'the other team were screen sucking their BlackBerrys the whole time. They thought they were being efficient, but got totally hoodwinked because they weren't listening.'

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