September 17, 2014

How The Multitasking Myth Is Hurting You

shutterstock_121585771Being a good multitasker seems to be part of the price of entry into the startup world. Many an entrepreneur takes pride in how great they are at it.

So it gives one pause that Stanford University, that great think tank of innovation and launchpad of so many successful startups says that not only is multitasking not good for you, you’re not even good at it.

The study entitled Cognitive control in media multitaskers, authored by Eyal Ophir, M.S., Clifford Nass, Ph.D., and  Anthony D. Wagner, Ph.D. says our intuition (not to mention our pride) has got it all very, very wrong.

Mythical Abilities of the Multitasker

The study focuses on three key abilities:

  • Filtering
  • Memory management
  • Task switching

It turns out that while many people have problems with one or more of these abilities, chronic multitaskers are bad at all three and they are worse at each of them than the average person.

One would assume a habitual multitasker must be excellent at filtering out noise from their multiple streams of input and at focusing on relevant information. Not so. It turns out that high multitaskers are suckers for “red and shiny”. If it is distracting, they run to it. If it is irrelevant, they jump on it. In fact, the more irrelevant information they see, the more they’re attracted to it. They are moths to the flame.

Surely then the high multitasker must be methodical and organized about memory so that they can store and retrieve information from this flood of data that they continually draw. Alas, that is also not so. It appears that they are much worse at compartmentalizing information. Additionally, they are slower to recall information. Once again, the non-multitasker has them beat.

Finally, the committed multitasker is slower at switching from one task to another and has a harder time making the transition. This may be completely counterintuitive but, well, science.

Do We At Least Have Our Priorities Straight?

Another observation the study made was that the multitasker may not realize the priorities they are applying to their multiple tasks. For instance, a favorite multitasking scenario is talking on the cell phone while driving. You would think that driving would be the primary task while the phone call would be the distraction.

But, in fact, the phone call becomes primary with the driving as the distraction. This gives you a hint why multitasking causes problems.

Startup Objectives Vs. Multitasking Objectives

How can this be? It seems to fly in the face of what we would like to believe. One key may be in the objectives of our intrepid multitasker. If you want to explore rather than exploit, multitasking, even poorly, will feel more satisfying. Exploration, after all, is just about gathering lots of information.

Exploitation, however, is about concentrating information to put it to some practical use. In the startup realm, exploitation is far more important on a day by day basis.

But I’m Special (So Very, Very Special)

If you are thinking that maybe you belong to a special group to which these results don’t apply, think again. The study found no significant deviation in results based on agreeableness, conscientiousness, creativity, extraversion, intelligence, neuroticism, openness, nor the big one, gender. That’s right, men and women are equally bad at multitasking.

Furthermore, being smart doesn’t help and neither does being well adjusted. We are running out of excuses.

But maybe it’s a generational thing, you hypothesize?

Nope. While there is an enormous desire among Gen Yers, teenagers and 20-somethings to attempt to multitask, they do no better than the more resistant baby boomers. Motivation does not improve results, nor does peer pressure. Yes, the younger crowd may work their smartphone better. But when it comes to actual results, technological superiority doesn’t make up for the fact that our brains operate basically the same whether we are 25 or 55.

Join Multitaskers Anonymous

So what is a recovering multitasker to do?

Plan for monotasking. Reward yourself for completion of tasks rather than counting how many plates you have spinning.

Close down the input sources: don’t have Facebook AND Twitter AND LinkedIn AND twelve Web pages open at once. Don’t surf the Web and watch television and listen to the radio at the same time. Give tasks your full attention in short but concentrated bursts. The less you multitask, the more you will accomplish. And accomplishment can become habit forming.

Have you figured out how to kick the multitasking habit?

Multitasking Photo via Shutterstock

27 Comments ▼

Kenneth Vogt


Kenneth Vogt Kenneth Vogt helps entrepreneurial men with a big purpose cut through the fog to change the world. You can find updates of true clarity and a free guide, "How To Get Clarity and Hold On To It" at Vera Claritas.

27 Reactions

  1. I agree that focused effort on one task for a block of time is very under appreciated, especially in the tech sector.

    • It’s funny how entire industries take on certain characteristics. It’s when those characteristics are counterproductive that it is so difficult to buck the trend. Even someone like yourself who doesn’t gravitate toward multitasking personally may feel compelled because all his compatriots do it. Start a new trend, Robert. Save the tech sector!

  2. Great post Kenneth. I have to say, I’ve never been a fan of multi-tasking, I much prefer to stick to one task and get through it before moving onto the next. Now I don’t have to feel guilty about that fact – brill.

    • I’m glad you got some ammo to shoot at your guilt. ;-) The problem is for folks who feel guilty about *not* multitasking. If they need data to get over the hump, it has now been delivered.

  3. Oh, it hurts… because it’s so true.
    ~2

  4. I wonder just how many are still adding ‘multitasking’ on their resume like it’s some kind of a special skill.. and I encounter them a lot when I’m hiring. Multitasking means Speed Tasking for me, that someone can do things so fast that it sacrifices quality for quantity; I’d rather have someone who’s more focused instead.

    • Hi Shaleen, That’s funny but true. I’ve seen so many resumes with multitasking on them.

      I’ve even used that term in job descriptions. But I am thinking it is a matter of a different definition. When I used it I meant something a bit different — I referred to an employee who can juggle a few projects at a given time. I don’t have in mind a person who is scattered-brained and working on 10 things in a given hour and doing none of them well, but rather someone who can work on multiple things serially until each gets done. Nothing is more frustrating than an employee who has 7 assignments/ responsibilities, and can’t seem to figure out which one to tackle first, but gets flustered and overwhelmed just because there are 7 things on his or her plate. The person who uses his or her time well will focus on one task at a given time, but also knows how to set other projects out of mind temporarily and doesn’t wilt at the prospect of having multiple assignments to get done serially (not concurrently).

      – Anita

      • Hi Anita, I think what you are describing is self-management or even project management but not multitasking as it is commonly understood. Someone who is good at what you are looking for would be hard pressed to multitask if they want to succeed.

      • Hi Anita,
        I agree with you! I am what you would call a multitasker, I am a mother too! An evening at home after work requires multitasking to make all things happen in a timely manner. Kids after school activities, Homework, Dinner, Bath times, Dishes, a load of laundry and then work on the internet and then finally bedtime. I really feel women are able to multitask better than men…because we are mothers and engineered that way.
        I have always excelled at work because of multitasking and see many others are frazzled when they have several duties to accomplish!
        I am not so sure I agree with all they say in this article but it sure gives us something to think about.
        Karla

      • Multitaskers unite! :)

        Seriously, though, Karla, while no one should be scatterbrained and unable to focus enough to get anything done, I do heartily support the concept of being able to juggle multiple responsibilities and figuring out how to do each one serially.

    • Hi Shaleen, I think you are describing one of the natural negative outcomes of multitasking but it is not the only one. I would say the person you describe is a “functional multitasker”. Sure, they get things done but at an unacceptable cost. Anita who comments below talks about the nonfunctional multitasker who gets frozen into inactive because of confusion or overwhelm.

      There are all these great comments here but where are the defenders of multitasking? I thought for sure someone would weigh in and say they are in fact a great multitasker by now. :-)

  5. An excellent article. It took a bit of courage for you to write this because only a few people really understand that multitasking is ineffective. Thanks for exposing this “myth”. Focusing on the task at hand is a huge key in having a productive day.

  6. I would so love to defend multi-tasking. I used to think I was so good at it but your article has taken me to task. I do however think I was better at it when I was younger and didn’t have quite so much information in my head. My name is Angela and I’m a multi-tasker…I wish there were a group for this. Thanks for pointing this out and I am now moving forward with a new mission.

    • Hi Angela, I have been waiting for someone to jump in to defend multitasking so I could go toe to toe but now I don’t want to. :-) Thank you for your authenticity. It’s really just about establishing new habits, and maybe a little self-discipline and focus. I can say this with conviction because I too am a recovering multitasker who has been “clean” for many years. I don’t want to make a mockery of those who have overcome serious and dangerous addictions but this particular problem causes a lot of unhappiness. The twelve step approach is applicable to multitasking as well because this approach is sourced in profound universal truth.

  7. Hi Karla, thank you for your perspective on this. There are lots of roles that require handling many duties and motherhood is a prime example. I would take issue with the idea that women are “engineered” for multitasking though and not just as a personal opinion or elevating my own observations. The study was rather clear that gender had no impact on the detriments of multitasking. The issue isn’t how many tasks one has on their plate however, it is how they approach them. I can walk and chew gum at the same time but that doesn’t make it multitasking. The successful mother, one who stays content and peaceful, will always be the one who approaches her responsibilities serially, many though they may be.

  8. Thank you Ken for your take on multi tasking, I really like your term “monotasking”, and I think the keys are prioritization and time boxing of activities. One thing which I implemented across my daily/weekly tasks is to write down my time estimate for the activity before (and after). Slowly…very slowly, I realize what is doable and what’s not during a 24 hours. Speaking with business owners I found it very interesting that on one hand we tend to think we can accomplish much more during a single day than what is really feasible, however on the other hand we tend to only set “small” goals for a longer period of time (for example 5 years).

    • This reminds me of what Mark McCormack said in his book “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School”. He insisted that you know how long it takes you to do things. They fact is most people either don’t or (more often) choose to remain in denial. Good for you to face the hard truth about how long things actually take.

  9. IN my business, I receive applications daily. Just a point…many people put this on their resume “multitasking abilities”. I have always considered this to be a good trait.
    Ken, just wanted to say this is a great article and has me thinking about my employees and the possibility of training with this article in mind. This is a great article…Thank you!

  10. So there is a job interview for a job that has a description with “ABILITY TO MULTI-TASK AND WORK ON MULTIPLE PROJECTS AT THE SAME TIME UNDER TIGHT DEADLINES”. At first glance my ego says, I can do that, but whomever writes this is likely to be the manager that will supervise me, do you believe its wise to question this point in an interview and flash to them my smart %$@ new insight into multi-tasking?

    • Saul, you may have to sell the idea of monotasking to someone who would write such a job description. Frankly, it sounds kind of boilerplate to me. I read that as, “We run with our hair on fire around here.” If that speaks to you, cool. But recognize that if you are going to make it work you will have to serially monotask a portfolio of projects.

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