Too Busy to Multitask

Foggy day in Marin County, CA. Trees pictured are native “California Bay Trees.”

Multitasking has become a prominent part of today’s business culture. Responding to calls, texts, and emails while hurriedly running to a meeting has become a calling card for the modern business professional. Fast and scattered workdays are assumed to be the best way to get things done. Believing that the faster we run, the farther we are getting ahead of the competition, deadlines, and our to-do list. Although chaotic, a multitasking workday can make us feel good too. We feel more productive, and to the outside observer we look more important and appear to have more responsibility. This may be part of the reason we continue to do it, apart from the seemingly obvious production value.

But does multitasking really have any production value? I had always assumed so, believing that performing two (or more) tasks at once was more productive than doing only one thing at a time.

This sacred cow was challenged by a chapter I read in Gary Keller’s book “The One Thing”, the chapter title is pretty self-explanatory, it’s titled: “The Lies That Misleads Us: Multitasking.” I initially read this chapter years ago with some skepticism and viewed Keller’s view to be impractical. Although Keller has a very unique approach to business, his opposition to multitasking isn’t just based on his experiences. Keller referenced multiple scientific studies in the chapter, such as a Stanford study that tested 262 students and found those categorized as “heavy multitaskers” were significantly less productive. The Stanford Professor Clifford Nass who led the study said that “high multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy,” and despite doing multiple things at once, found multitaskers were much less productive.

The University of London found that their test subjects experienced a 15 point in IQ while multitasking, bringing their IQ to roughly that of an 8 year old child. This drop in IQ can be compared tothe same mental handicap of someone who just pulled an all nighter, or someone who had just smoked marijuana; but it’s not just IQ that’s affected during multitasking. EQ (emotional quotient) is also greatly diminished. The University of Sussex found after evaluating brain MRI’s that multitaskers anterior cingulate cortex lacked density during multitasking, diminishing their ability to feel empathy or even demonstrate cognitive control.

UCSF neuroscientist Dr Adam Gazzaley discovered via MRI brain scans that the prefrontal cortex of the brain works in harmony with other parts of the brain when working on a single task; but when multitasking, the two sides of the brain split up, forcing the left and right brain to work independently. This renders the brain much less efficent, and prevents certain mental process from occurring at all.

Production downfalls aside, the hurried distracted worker is common and easily replaceable. To differentiate yourself in today’s market, produce high-quality work that requires deep, focused, concentration. There are many smart, busy, fast-paced, multitasking individuals in the workforce, but only a few that have the undivided focus and capability to perform “deep work.”

“Do three things well, not ten things badly.” David Segrove