How Multitasking Ends Up Hurting Your Productivity

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Multitasking is an important skill, and many people have mastered it. Particularly because technology, and electronic devices in particular, have become such an important part of Americans’ lives, multitasking is often necessary or desirable. It’s completely common for someone to be talking on the phone while also browsing online, and also eating their lunch. It’s an important skill for employees to be able to handle and juggle many different projects at once. In many ways, multitasking is a valuable skill. However, a recent Stanford study suggests that attempting to multitask by using too many different kinds of media at once actually might be detrimental to your cognitive control. One hundred students faced a series of three different tests, and researchers found that those people who participated in heavy media multitasking were underperforming because of it. The study was completed on students, but the implications could reach much further.

One of the researcher’s goals was to determine if multitaskers had a specific gift that allowed them to control their thoughts and what they pay attention to. However, they couldn’t find any edge. According to the study, those who regularly participated in several different media tasks at once (such as sending an email while texting and also watching the television) did not pay attention or have as much control of their memory as people who regularly completed one task at a time.

For the tests, participants were split into two groups: regular media multitaskers and those who didn’t regularly participate in media multitasking. Participants then took part in different experiments (including one about the configuration of rectangles.) In this study, the multitaskers were extremely distracted, while the other group had no problem with the experiment. The multitaskers also had a difficult time with the second and third experiments. The third experiment tested whether multitaskers could switch from one thing to another in a faster or better way than other people could, but the lighter multitaskers outdid the heavy multitaskers again. Researchers came to the conclusion that the heavy multitaskers couldn’t keep different aspects of the experiment separate, and that they were always looking at all of the information in front of them.

The researchers are trying to determine whether media multitaskers are harming their cognitive control because they are experiencing so much at once, or because they were born with an inability to concentrate. Researchers did determine that the heavy multitaskers could not filter irrelevant information from the whole picture in order to achieve the present goal (such as in the experiments.) Based on the tests, it seems clear that of those students who multitask too much when it comes to media are less able to complete certain tasks. According to the study and the experiments, multitasking is certainly hurting productivity.

While media multitasking does seem to have a clear effect on cognitive abilities in some situations, it isn’t clear if productivity is harmed in all cases of multitasking. While the students clearly had a difficult time with the particular experiments, there are others who say that the ability to multitask is very important. According to the American Management Association, multitasking is vital in the business world. If you are able to train your brain to efficiently channel energy, you can effectively accomplish a lot more in less time. However, according to the AMA, you have to learn how to do this. One step is to practice whatever the skill you want to learn or be able to do effectively. You can also use a particular tool to help you multitask (like a list.) However, it’s important to take breaks, and to know when a task needs all of your attention, and to put multitasking aside for a bit when necessary.

Of course, using various different forms of media can be different than attempting to juggle several different projects at work. However, media is a big part of our work lives as well, and between intraoffice messaging, emails, and reports, you will certainly be facing multiple media tasks each day. Multitasking can help you get everything done, but it also can harm your productivity. This is true of more than just the students that the Stanford study considered; young kids multitask, as do students of all ages, as well as older adults. Multitasking itself is sometimes unavoidable.

Part of that fact is because many of us are so interested in media, and some people really can’t put their phones down, or shut their computers, for more than a few minutes. But multitasking is also a part of regular day life. Of course we want to avoid harming any of our cognitive abilities, but sometimes, multitasking can be helpful. It’s just necessary to determine when productivity is harmed by multimedia, and when it helps.

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