New evidence explains why multitasking is bad for you

09 October 2015 -


One billion working days are lost in the UK every year due to multi-tasking, according to new research from Ranstad

Jermaine Haughton

As a manager, multitasking seems almost imperative. Encouraged to do more work, quicker and more efficiently than before, as well as the constant exposure to all the different streams of information, it’s hard not to multi-task. Moreover, the numerous demands of technology and social media in the workplace – from mobile phones to tablets to instant messaging – has only seen the temptation to multi-task intensify.

However, multitasking is often overwhelming and inefficient. The average person struggles to take in all of the information needed when faced with five or six different distractions at the same time, so it is not unusual for multi-taskers to provide results that are fraught with errors, mistakes, and require additional effort due to rework.

In the latest poll of 2,025 British adults commissioned by Ranstad, 45% of respondents said they have to deal with more multi-tasking in their working lives than they did two or three years ago. Conversely, Only 16% of workers said they have to balance a smaller workload.

According to the study, UK employees are usually interrupted six times every day, which leads to the loss of 120 minutes per day of work (or ten hours every week). Considering the UK has 22.76 million full-time employees working around 253 days annually, British employers could be missing out on over 1 billion working days’ worth of productivity every year, during a period when the country’s productivity rate has slumped dramatically.

With another study from the University of London also showing employees lose the equivalent of 10 IQ points when their work is constantly disrupted, Mark Bull, chief executive of Randstad UK, urged employers to find ways to help the British workforce cope with the time and cognitive costs of multitasking at work.

“Multitasking is becoming an increasingly important part of people’s working lives – 70% of employers tell us they regard it as important,” he said. “That’s a problem because we all pay a cognitive price when we multitask – we deplete our mental energy every time we jump from one activity to another – and that price is soaring as multi-tasking becomes more prevalent in the workplace.

“The consequences are surprisingly serious when you take into account the amount of time it takes us to regain our flow following another interruption.”

And frequent multi-tasking has even been proven to have a negative effect on managerial capabilities.

The late Clifford Nass, communications professor at Stanford University, previously concluded that the more you're multitasking, the less you're able to filter out irrelevant information and found managers to be less thoughtful and more inclined to exercise poor judgment.

Based on one particular study, Nass said: “We have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted.

“They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And . . . they're even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multi-task, they're actually worse at it. So they're pretty much mental wrecks.”

Here, Insights gives you three vital steps to avoid the dangers of multitasking at work:

Unitask: Instead of changing from project to project, managers should administer a set amount time to focus on completing one activity before moving onto the next. With concentration undivided and the pressure of working against the clock, managers can get more work finished and are likely to produce fewer mistakes.

Andy Teach, author of From Graduation to Corporation, said: “In the old days before the GPS, if you were driving around and got lost and had to look at a map, the first thing you did was to turn off the radio so you could concentrate. To successfully unitask, you need to do the same type of thing; eliminate any outside distractions.”

Isolate yourself: One of the simplest, but perhaps hardest, steps to greater work productivity is to move away from distractions, especially those of an electronic variety. Shut down emails, mute notifications, and log out of Facebook and Twitter.

“It’s not effective to read and answer every email as it arrives. Just because someone can contact you immediately does not mean that you have to respond to them immediately,” said Dan Markovitz, president of the productivity consulting firm TimeBack Management.

Task grouping: Clustering tasks together can also be an effective method of organising a manager’s workload and giving it the required attention. Instead of attending to a number of scattered phone calls, emails and administrative duties, group activities which are similar in subject matter (such as, work for a particular client or event) together. Then draw together a to-do list on each distinct group based on task size, urgency, etc.

Powered by Professional Manager