Why multitasking is actually slowing us down

The average person is now armed with 2.9 mobile devices. As we continue to collect new devices, we as managers need to ensure we’re keeping our workforce productive as they make the most of the latest and greatest technological advances.

It’s easy to get swept up in the power of technology – imagining all that’s possible to make your business more efficient and profitable. Take Google Glass and the endless possibilities that can come with having hands-free data right in front of our eyes. The healthcare industry alone is a buzz with the potential benefits – imagine using the glasses to pull up relevant medical data while in the middle of surgery or to help guide a doctor in another location through an unfamiliar procedure. The impact of the tool could truly be life changing.

Yet, as excited as we get about new technology (guilty as charged!), when the very tools that were meant to make us better communicators, managers and innovators start to do the opposite, we need to make adjustments. Research now shows that our urge to multitask and repeatedly glance at our smartphones and tablets is hurting us more than we realize.

Multitasking actually wastes time

Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, discussed “The Myth of Multitasking” on NPR, and highlighted how multitasking wastes more time than it saves and is killing individual creativity. Now you might be thinking: “Well, that doesn’t apply to me. I get more done at one time than most people I know.” If that’s the case, please read on.

Nass stated that people who multitask most are often the worst at it. They struggle to filter out irrelevant information, have poor working memory and are often distracted. Oh, and did I mention that the research on this topic was almost unanimous?

In another NPR piece, David Sanbonmatsu, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, succinctly summed up the problem facing us in an era of constant connectivity, saying that people don't multitask because they're good at it, but “because they are more distracted. They have trouble inhibiting the impulse to do another activity."

Multitaskers are wrong

But here’s the really interesting part. The individuals who chronically multitask actually believe they are more productive. According to Nass, they believe if they really have to concentrate – say, to crank out that sales deck or earnings report – they can. But in reality, being laser-focused for this group is nearly impossible.

The good news, according to Nass, is that our brains are built to receive many stimuli at once. The bad news: the stimuli need to be related. So, if you’re working on an RFP for your business development group, and all of your multitasking is directly related to the proposal, you’re doing OK. The problems arise when you’re working on an RFP, scanning your Twitter feed, reading headlines from NFL.com and listening to music at the same time.

Most of us are guilty of using more than one media at once and probably have been for a while. So, you might not be surprised to learn that research out of Stanford University found that the top 25 percent of students are using four or more media at one time whenever they're connected. A laptop, phone, iPad, iPod – it quickly adds up.

The impact of multitasking on our peers

Finally, our multitasking isn’t just negatively impacting us, it’s also distracting those around us. That’s right, by bringing your phone or PC to a meeting and surfing the Web, you’re stealing the show away from the meeting agenda, and further distracting your coworkers.

A study done this year of undergraduate students illustrated this point. Participants were instructed not to take notes on their laptops, but several “students” (who were actually involved in the experiment) had laptops open and were flipping between the Internet and taking notes – visible to some students but not others. Students who were in view of the “multitaskers” scored 17 percent lower on the test than those who could not see the laptop.

I don’t want my employees producing less work, or lower-quality work because they’re multitasking. Enforcing a no-device rule during meetings is one step, what are other ways you’re keeping your employees focused?

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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