You’ve probably heard some small business owners boast about their ability to multitask. The boaster may even have been you. But have you ever heard people boast about lowering their productivity by 40 percent?
Psychologists have been looking at the modern day phenomenon of multitasking and there seems to be a consensus emerging that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It takes its toll in a variety of ways—we’ll touch on some of these in a moment—and because of how our brains work, inveterate multi-taskers may be decreasing their productive time by as much as 40 percent.
It turns out that the mind takes a little time to “switch” between tasks. The experts say it’s a two-step process. The mind needs to shift “goals” and then switch between the sets of “rules” that govern the different activities.
Forcing the brain to be constantly throwing all of those switches as you move back and forth between different tasks loses time and makes you more prone to errors.
In the trenches
If you talk to people who are sensitive to the mental errors that seem to accompany multi-tasking you start to gather some pretty strong empirical evidence of how it hinders job performance as well. See if you can relate to this example:
You’re busy at some activity and you suddenly have an inspiration. It’s a great idea and one you know you’ll remember and follow up on. However, you’re quickly pulled away to deal with something else. Later in the day you remember you had a great idea, but can’t for the life of you remember what it was.
This scenario is becoming very common in business today. Think about all the times you have been interrupted while doing an important task and when you finally come back to it, the first words out of your mouth are, “Where was I?”
All of those “Where was I?” moments and lost ideas add up over time. And it’s even worse than that. Work that involves ongoing high-stress multitasking has been linked to short-term memory loss.
Ongoing high-stress multitasking
It’s a phrase that captures the everyday work environment for many small business owners. Much of our multi-tasking today has become so second nature to us that it’s invisible. How many of us even consider checking our smartphones, or interrupting a task to check email as multi-tasking any longer? Practices such as these have just become “givens.” However, each one erodes our attention and our ability to concentrate.
The economy that has been so difficult on small businesses in recent years has also played a role in this. Some businesses have downsized and rolled the duties of the eliminated employees over into the workload of others. Similarly, rather than create a new position, responsibilities have been added to existing job descriptions.
In a previous generation we might have said that doing this created the danger of “spreading people too thin.” We know now that not only is there a danger of diffusion, there’s also decreased productivity overall.
On the bright side, studies also indicate that about 2 percent of the population can handle multi-tasking, so if you have a staff composed entirely of the 2 percent, you’re okay.
But let’s be honest, that’s never the case.
You can regain that productivity by setting aside larger blocks of time in which you fully concentrate on single tasks. I heard one of the industry’s best copywriters once say that he sits down with a timer set for 33 minutes and concentrates on only one piece of writing for that long with no interruptions. Not a bad idea!