Series on Multi-tasking: Is it all bad?

Not too long ago, multitasking was viewed as a coveted skill among workers. There was a belief that, like computers, employees that could multitask could get more things done in a lesser amount of time. However, what was once viewed as a benefit to workers is now widely seen as harmful to productivity by most experts on the subject.

Recent studies have found that multitasking can negatively affect a worker’s efficiency in performing an assignment. When switching between multiple projects, participants in these studies found it hard to switch mindsets, as each individual project required a different focus area. Participants instead had to spend time readjusting their focus before they could continue on with the new task, or if they could not adjust their mindset their performance in that area would suffer.

The other potentially career-damaging aspect of multitasking is the inability to retain information. According to a study by Stanford University in 2009, workers that “are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention” and are less likely to recall that information soon after.

Generally speaking, the consensus is that multitasking stretches our brain just a little too much in opposing directions. To combat this, workers can find no more than two projects that require a specific mindset to accomplish the tasks at hand. If these employees find that they can maintain focus equally on both projects, they may find that this finely-focused form of dual tasking works perfect for their daily productivity and keeps them interested in the work at hand. This theory was tested by French scientist, Etienne Koechlin, in Scientific American. The results proved that if two tasks were performed at the same time – as long as they interacted with the same ‘side’ of the brain – productivity and motivation were increased among test subjects.

Multitasking can help in other ways too. A constant concern for companies in the modern age is employee dissatisfaction. Ohio University’s Master’s in Business Administration discusses the effect this can have on a company, and the importance of keeping employees engaged, motivated, and productive. Employees that are unhappy or don’t feel ‘fully engaged’ at work can end up causing companies billions of dollars in stolen property, mediocre work, and frequent sick days.

To combat this, some suggest to layer stressful or unsatisfying tasks with more rewarding ones. As one group of researchers found out from a study with students at Ohio State University, students that watched television while studying were actually more productive and happier or “emotionally satisfied.” Although that same scenario of watching television while working can’t be played out in most offices, similar ideas can be applied.

Managers can encourage employees to listen to music, go for a walk while checking emails, or let them spend time at home with their pets and families while they work remotely (not all working parents will find this relaxing, though).

In the end, multitasking can be damaging to productivity, but managers should not discount it completely. Instead, let workers decide for themselves what keeps them engaged at the job and what they feel is the most productive approach for multitasking. Be sure to reiterate the damages of overloading on tasks, but also remember the benefits of dual tasking.

It’s an equation for success: employee engagement + focus = a productive workflow; and happy employees make organizations profitable.