The Multitasking Illusion

Most of us believe that multitasking increases our productivity. That belief turns out to be an illusion.

The New York Times reports that “heavy multitaskers” have more “trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information” than non-multitaskers. And they “experience more stress.”

Stanford researcher Eyal Ophir was studying whether or not our brains have evolved to make us “efficient and effective multitaskers.” Ophir divided study subjects into two groups: those who are heavy multitaskers and those who are not.

In one test, subjects were briefly shown an image of red rectangles and blue rectangles and asked whether any of the red rectangles had moved. In another test, subjects were briefly shown a number and a letter and then asked to say whether the number was odd or even, or whether the letter was a vowel or a consonant.

The findings? Multitaskers scored significantly more poorly on each test than non-multitaskers, because

  • They had more trouble ignoring the “irrelevant information” (i.e., filtering out the blue from the red triangles).
  • They took longer “switching between tasks” (i.e., focusing on the number or letter as instructed).

You can take the two tests yourself:

It turns out that mutltitasking has other deleterious effects. The Times article also reports that a University of California, Irvine, study found that “people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus.”

The implications to your personal productivity are clear. Not only is multitasking inefficient, it is unhealthy. When addressing an important task that requires your full intellectual focus and engagement, eliminate distractions. Monotask. Shut down your e-mail client. Close your web browser. Turn your smart phone to silent. Log out of Facebook, Skype and G-Chat. Switch off the Twitter feed. Mute Pandora. Direct the full focus of your mental energies solely to the task at hand.

While writing this blog post, I followed all those prescriptions…honest…well…mostly!

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