Is Multitasking Making You Stupid?

The ability to multi-task is something that managers are increasingly required to display. This talent, however, is not something that we are born with.

Nobody teaches us how to multi-task; it’s a skill we learn through experience. Some people seem to breeze through a multitude of jobs and be in control. But how effective are they really?

The inability to multi-task effectively in today’s office environment quickly leads to important tasks being left uncompleted.

To do two things at once is to do neither.
– Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C. 7

Trying to complete a task with the telephone ringing, colleagues interrupting, and a constant flow of emails demanding immediate response can quickly lead to overwhelm and stress.

Stop Multi-Tasking?

Multi-tasking is “the death of people,” says Jeff Davidson, author of 36 self-help books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Things Done.

“People think they have to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously in order to be productive and profitable… Just the opposite is true,” Davidson says.

When Davidson presents, he does this on-stage experiment: He takes two people from the audience and gives each 15 pennies, 15 paper clips, and a pen and paper. He tells one person to stack the pennies, link the paper clips, and draw 15 stars — in that order. He tells the other person to switch back and forth among the tasks. The multi-tasker finishes last.

94% of all failure is due to the system, not the person.
– W. Edwards Deming

Davidson says “sharp attention” is what is needed to complete tasks most effectively and is only possible if you focus on one task at a time. “Breakthrough thinking doesn’t happen when you’re multi-tasking,” claims Davidson.

Experts Tell Us . . .

• The average person gets distracted 11 minutes into a task and takes 25 minutes to recover their focus. Our brains have not evolved to deal with so many distractions at once, say researchers. On a typical day, people working in offices are interrupted about seven times an hour, which adds up to 56 interruptions a day, 80% of which are considered trivial , according to time-management experts. (TIME Magazine, 10/11/2004)

• According to the American Psychological Association, humans, especially men, are far more productive when allowed to focus on one task instead of trying to juggle many things.

• Multi-tasking can lead to a 10-point reduction in IQ, double the reduction caused by smoking marijuana or missing a night’s sleep. A study from the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London suggests that your IQ falls 10 points when you’re multi-tasking – the same loss you’d experience if you missed an entire night’s sleep and more than double the 4-point loss you’d have after smoking marijuana. On average men fared worse than women because, researchers say, men have more difficulty multi-tasking. ( Yoga Journal, p. 22, 12/2005)

• “For the past 10 years we have studied the behavior of busy managers in nearly a dozen large companies. Our finding on managerial behavior should frighten you. Fully 90% of managers squander their time in all sorts of ineffective activities. In other words, a mere 10% of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner.”( Dr. Heike Burch and Dr. Sumatra Goshen, Harvard Business Review, 2/2002)

• A study by Basex, a New York research firm, found that office distractions ate up 2.1 hours a day for the average worker. That adds up to $28 billion a year in the United States alone. Another study found that employees devoted an average of 11 minutes to a project before being distracted. Researchers Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez of the University of California, Irvine, found that once interrupted, it takes workers 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they return at all. People switch activities , such as making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle or working on a document, every three minutes on average, Mark said. ( Betty Lin-Fisher (for Knight Rider Newspapers), Houston Chronicle, 2/27/2006)

• People who multi-task are less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, says a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology Managing two mental tasks at once reduces the brainpower available for either task, according to a study published in the journal NeuroImage. Sue Shellenberger ( from the Wall Street Journal), Star Telegram: “multi-tasking Makes You Stupid, Studies Say,” 12/2/2003)

A well known story about prioritizing is told about Charles Schwab, the President of Bethlehem Steel in the 1920’s.

Schwab was frustrated because he didn’t think he was getting enough done. A consultant studied how Schwab worked, then gave him this recommendation: Every morning, make a list of what you need to do. Number the tasks in order of importance, then rewrite the list in order of importance. Begin with the first task, and no matter how many times you’re interrupted, go back to that first task until it’s finished. Then go on to the second task.

Schwab’s productivity soared when doing his work this way, and so he asked his staff to work in the same way.

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