Why multitasking is bad

CLAIRE DUNN
Last updated 12:07 23/01/2014
multitasking
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STRESSED OUT: Stanford University researchers found that multitasking led to more mistakes and longer time needed to perform tasks.

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A senior executive wedges the phone on her shoulder to chat while typing a meeting agenda. An email pings in and she flicks to it, one arm gesticulating to a colleague at the door. An image of uber-efficiency or multitasking gone mad?

Although it may feel as if we're ticking things off the list, recent studies say multitasking makes us less productive and more stressed.

Stanford University researchers found that it led to more mistakes and longer time needed to perform tasks.

An American psychiatrist, Dr Edward Hallowell, who studied multitasking over two decades declared modern workers to be chronic sufferers of "Attention Deficit Trait", having lost the ability to focus, and had become "frenzied underachievers".

Rasmus Hougaard, an anti-multitasking campaigner and speaker at last year's Mind & Its Potential conference in Sydney, says the phenomenon is primarily a modern one.

"Work-life has changed. A few decades ago, we were presented with one information stream - doctors treated patients, CEOs their reports and meetings. Now we juggle emails, smart phones, tablets, open offices. It's a lot of information coming at us," Hougaard says.

Multitasking is the brain's default mechanism for coping with constant cross-fire, Hougaard says.

"The brain's reaction to multiple tasks at the same time is to try to solve them all at once. There is inbuilt inefficiency in this. If you're writing an email and answering the phone, it takes a few minutes to properly switch tasks. There is much time lost in transitions," Hougaard says.

It is also at the expense of long-term planning and decision making abilities.

"When we're constantly distracted, we lose the capacity for visionary and creative thinking. We become addicted to action and reaction."

Citing research showing the human mind wanders in 47 per cent of our waking hours, Hougaard explains how training in the ancient practice of mindfulness can make for better workers.

"It's basically about learning how to manage our attention," says Hougaard, whose Potential Project has introduced mindfulness to companies such as Google, Sony Electronics and General Electric.

"The mind is like a muscle; it can be strengthened and toned and make us more present. And it can be trained to more effectively engage in everyday work activities to be more productive, efficient, collaborative and creative."

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Rather than hours of zen meditation, the training often starts with curtailing email checks.

"Email is the biggest issue for workers now, with 60,000 of surveyed Australian employees saying emails were detrimental to their performance," Hougaard says.

Instead of responding to emails first thing in the morning, Hougaard recommends tackling a focus-oriented goal during the first two hours of the day. Email should be scheduled - three periods of one hour a day for example.

Senior sports executive within the ACT government Neale Guthrie welcomed corporate mindfulness training as a way of managing stress after a promotion two years ago.

"I was always on 10 channels at once. I'd be constantly scanning emails and interrupted by people asking me things. I was constantly switching," Guthrie says.

"That was manageable until I gained responsibility for a second group and suddenly I was struggling."

As well as 10 minutes of meditation a day, Guthrie learnt to "be present" with one task at a time, as well as to set priorities.

"Rather than doing the nine other things in my head at the same time, I've learnt to be in the moment with whatever I'm doing," Guthrie says.

"Late in afternoon I sit down for 10 minutes and write down all the tasks that need doing. Then I star three that I want to concentrate on. When I come in to work the next day, I don't look at the others - I just focus on those three."

Guthrie deals with his 200 emails a day by scanning them twice a day for anything urgent. Another Eureka moment came for Guthrie when he learnt to adopt an attitude of "beginner's mind".

"As a senior executive, I've cycled through the same issues two or three times. I'd shoot down ideas because they didn't work three years ago. Now I try to look at everything fresh."

Guthrie found that, as his productivity went up, so did his wellbeing.

"My blood pressure dropped. Work colleagues said I wasn't as wound up and my wife noticed I was far more relaxed.

"It's not zen and crazy hippies. We're in the sports industry - it's chips and beer on weekends. But this really works. It's simple but effective," says Guthrie.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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