Multitasking has become an accepted part of working life, whether it’s tapping out an email as you’re scanning an unrelated memo or participating in an instant messaging thread while you’re on a conference call. But research suggests you’d be better off giving your undivided attention to one thing at a time.
A 2009 study from Stanford University looked at the differences in information processing between high and low multitaskers—those who frequently did more than one thing at a time, and those who did not. Respondents participated in three tests, designed to measure their ability to switch among tasks, filter irrelevant information, and use working memory. The result: those who regularly juggled more than one thing at a time fared far worse than their more focused counterparts. And only one of the tests actually required multitasking, suggesting that even when concentrated on a single task, regular multitaskers were processing less effectively.
Chronic multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” professor Clifford Nass, one of the study’s authors, told Stanford’s in-house news website. “Everything distracts them.” The more you multitask, the worse you are it, the study’s findings suggest.
But even infrequent multitaskers should beware trying to do too much at once. A growing body of research suggests there may actually be no such thing as multitasking. Rather than working on things simultaneously, this view holds, your brain is just repeatedly switching between them. And a 2001 study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the University of Michigan found that task-switching cost more time and lead to more errors than doing things one after another. The effect isn’t trivial—the researchers found that even brief mental blocks created by task switching could cost up to a whopping 40% of a person’s productive time.
So instead of trying to tackle everything you need to do all at once, work your way down the list. You may find you’ll accomplish more by doing one thing at a time.
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Do you agree with this study’s findings? How often do you multitask? Let us know using the comments section below.