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The myth of multitasking

As a knowledge worker, I am used to bouncing from one task to another, from distractions jumping in through my inbox, or a small interruption as I walk through office, to a barrage of messages on the company’s always-on Slack. However I realised that if I wanted to do my best work, I would have to rethink my use of my own, and my team’s time. This is where my interest in productivity and effective work really started. And here’s the thing: multitasking doesn’t work. Recent estimates say that you can lose up to 40% of your productivity if you multitask.

The term multitasking, on the surface, sounds like the pinnacle of productivity that all office workers should be striving to achieve. Why would employers pay somebody to perform just one task, when these superhumans can perform two or more at once?! However, the truth about what is really happening to us under the hood when we multitask is much less positive. In actual fact, people are exceptionally bad at working on more than one task simultaneously.

Instead, we constantly switch between one task and another. In psychological research, this act of switching between two tasks is called, unsurprisingly, Task Switching.

Task switching is "expensive" to our ability to work effectively. Not only do we lose precious time with each switch, but we make more mistakes when we return to the original task. Now I am a fan of the science, so here’s what we know from the research:

● When task-switching, it takes more time to get tasks completed than if you were to do them one at a time.

● You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.

● A task switch might initially seem to waste only 1/10th of a second, but researchers estimate that if you do a lot of switching it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity per day.

● The greater the complexity of the individual tasks, the more time will be lost switching in and out of them, and the greater the rate of errors.

Research shows that people can attend to only one cognitive task at a time. This means that even though you feel like you are undertaking a number of tasks at once, you can realistically only be thinking about one cognitively demanding activity at a time. So you can be talking, or you can be reading. You can be reading, or you can be typing.

The only exception that the research has uncovered is that if you are performing a physical task that you’re very used to, then you are more likely to be able to undertake a mental task at the same time. That being said, a reduction in the ability to perform both tasks has been observed. In a study by Hyman et. al. in 2009, people talking on their mobile phones while walking ran into people more often and didn’t notice what was going on around them.

We implemented a radical approach within our office: working in 45 minute chunks of time, followed by a ‘get up out of your seat’ 5-minute break, enforced company-wide. Why did we do this? To encourage deep work by blocking out the 45 minutes to dedicated tasks. Something not too long that you’ll miss something important, but long enough to make a dent in your task of choice. By making it company-wide, we removed the stigma of taking breaks that were vital for staff wellbeing and avoiding burnout. A happy coincidence is that by everyone taking a break at the same time you create a serendipitous approach to social interactions where teams could mix and create social bonds which improve office morale.

The five minute breaks are very important. The research on creativity tells us if you stop thinking about a problem or particular topic to focus on something less demanding, that your brain can continue to focus on the previous task. Some researchers have observed that, in particular, low-moderate levels of physical activity can increase the mind’s effectiveness. This could include walks around the block, or jogging. Nothing too strenuous. This means you have to set aside time for these gaps in your day. You need to have time in your day when you are doing less taxing work, so your brain can get on with solving problems for you. I’ll leave it up to you to experiment with this, and find the ratio of deep work to blank space that works for you.

Now, this is a hard thing to sell to your boss, and I am not sure I have ever found the perfect balance. However, having regular breaks from my computer, such as the 5-minute blocks, have certainly gone a long way towards relaxing my brain and allowing the creative thoughts to come flowing in. My role is not one that would typically be described as ‘creative’, as many knowledge workers will relate to; however being able to think creatively is the root of all problem solving, whether this be to solve a complex logistical problem for a client, or to come up with a plan to get more productivity from your team.

So what’s your next step? Accept it -- the first step to change any behavior is to fully embrace it. We are addicted to the constant buzz of activity that multitasking gives us. Just noticing when your attention starts to drift is the first step, and will allow you to start changing your behaviour.

Author: Jessica Gregory

Senshi Digital is an award winning digital tourism agency that recently implemented a 6-hours working day, with amazing results. There were winners at the 2018 Scottish Top Employers Awards in two categories, SME (Small) and Innovation. You can read more about them in our 2018 case study.

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