Is multi-tasking a myth?

24 Jan 10:00 by Karen Plum


Karen Plum, director of research and development, Advanced Workplace Associates.


The latest research from Advance Workplace Associates looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. The following considers the effect of task interruptions…


For most of us, dealing with interruptions is not something we can overcome; it’s literally an inevitable part of life! Interruptions to our workflow and our thought processes can have serious impacts on our performance and productivity, whether they are caused by someone stopping by our desk / office for a conversation, a phone call, a text or IM, or the inevitable bing bong as an email arrives and flashes up on our screen.


What happens when we’re interrupted?


Studies have shown that on average we shift between tasks every 3 minutes.


So anyone trying to work on a task requiring prolonged focus and concentration really is fighting a losing battle! The train of thought on our primary task is interrupted by a phone call, email from the boss, IM from an important colleague with a crisis, someone arriving at the desk to ask a question or a whole host of other visual or audible distractions – wherever we are working.


Our brain has to leave its train of thought to deal with the interruption – which could take many minutes to deal with – only to then need at least an equal amount of time to resume the train of thought (to re-activate the thinking) that was going on prior to the interruption.

How long will it be before the next interruption??


Why is focus important for our brains?


All of these interruptions mean that it takes longer to complete any task and the chances are that something vital in the thought process could be lost, never to be regained (you just can’t recapture that idea that was forming before the interruption), or you are forced to complete the task without the benefit of considered thought or the quality that comes through focus and dedicated attention.


Naturally the impact varies depending upon the nature of the task being undertaken, how long it was the subject of focus prior to the interruption and the length and type of the interruption itself. So if you’ve been working on a complex report for 20 minutes and you stop for 10 secs to respond to an IM, you can probably get back into the zone quickly if the interruption only lasts a few seconds. If the IM exchange lasts 5 minutes, your memory of what you were working on starts to degrade – particularly if the nature of the interruption demands the same level of “cognitive resources” as the primary task you were working on.


Can we really multi task?


Many people claim to be able to “multi task” and it is generally referred to as a desirable skill in today’s modern workplace. That said, what often happens is that none of the tasks are allocated the time / effort / focus that they need for successful completion – with each one being completed in slightly longer time and slightly less well / thoroughly / accurately.

The degree to which this is important depends on the nature of the job and the tasks being carried out, of course. However, you probably know yourself that if you can concentrate on one task at a time, you’ll finish it quicker and “better” if you’re not interrupted.


So it’s all a giant balancing act really. Often we prioritise the interruption over the primary task. Whether we do this through conscious thought or simply from a desire to be responsive and available to others (or even because the interruption is more interesting than the task)!


What is the cost to productivity and accuracy? Studies have shown that even an interruption of a few seconds can lead to errors – which although they might not be life threatening in most people’s jobs, presumably are compounded the more this goes on.


So what can you do to manage interruptions?


  1. Get into the habit of checking your email / voicemail at regular intervals during the day – but turn them off in between.


  2. Adopt a strategy for managing your “interrupters” – don’t let them steal your time. Check out MindTools for ideas for handling interruptions.


  3. Agree with your team colleagues the things that justify interrupting each other if you are really trying to concentrate.


  4. Make good on your promises to get back to people later if that is the trade you offer for not being able to talk to them now.


  5. Recognise if you have a tendency to do the “easy stuff” first – delaying more difficult or challenging tasks.


  6. If you are a manager / supervisor you have to be there for your team, but that doesn’t mean “always available”, just ensure they’re supported.


  7. Don’t be a slave to the “multi-tasking” bandwagon and let the quality of your work suffer.


    Give your brain a great day – try to focus on one thing at a time to do your best work!