Tuesday, November 11, 2014

There's Nothing Great about Multitasking

A reminder to "give every task your full attention" because "There's nothing great about multitasking."
For better results, give all tasks 100% of your attention.

Got a lot to get done today? Think multitasking is the answer?

Unfortunately, multitasking might actually cost you more time and energy than it saves.  

When you divide your attention among several tasks at once, you're actually rapidly switching from one task to another. Subsequently, each of those tasks takes longer, and each of those tasks will suffer from more mistakes than if you tackled one task at a time.

Prioritize for Better Outcomes

To think of this "don't multitask" message in a more positive, results-driven way, think of this: Giving tasks your full attention can help you achieve more and achieve better results.  When you prioritize your workload to account for deadlines and the complexity of a project or task, your outcomes will improve.  

Learning to prioritize is a soft skill everyone should master.
Think of this example of a student who has been assigned three research papers in three different classes in one term.  

Trying to write three papers at once might cost this student a lot of mental energy as he struggles to keep his topics, thesis statements, and research sources separate from one another. Finding the right files, sorting them, and trying to focus on three topics and all their subtopics while searching the library databases would take a lot of time and energy! He would have to spend many units of mental energy, called ergs, just keeping his tasks and materials organized.

But! On the other hand, if he begins his projects early and works on one paper at a time, day to day or week to week, he will not have to spend time or energy struggling to stay organized.

Rapid task-switching allots only a portion of energy to each task.
The remainder is spent switching gears.

Why Give 33% When You Can Give 100%

In other words, dividing his mental energy and focus allows this student to give only 33% of his potential effort to each of his research papers.   

Prioritizing his time and mental energy would allow this student to give 100% of his potential effort to each of his research papers.


A Multitasker's Test

Still not convinced that multitasking isn't the way to tackle your to-do lists?

Dr. Nancy K. Napier, the Executive Director of the Centre for Creativity and Innovation and Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University, shares the following short test to demonstrate the principle of divided ergs and multitasking.  Complete this test to see how multitasking, or rapid task switching, compares to tackling one task at a time.

Part A

1. Start a timer.  
2. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper. 
3. One the first line, write "I am great at multitasking."  
4. On the second line write out numerals 1 - 20.
5. Stop the timer.

Part B

1. Start a timer.
2. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper.
3. On the first line, write "I."
4. On the second line, write the numeral 1.
5. On the first line, write "a."
6. On the second line, write the numeral 2.
7. Continue switching back and forth between the first line and second line until you complete the sentence, "I am great at multitasking," on the first line and numerals 1 - 20 on the second line.
8. Stop the timer.

Dr. Napier and I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that you took less time to complete Part A, and that you also made fewer mistakes during Part A.  Were we right?  

During Part A, you were tackling one task at a time.  During Part B, you were rapidly task-switching and spending more time "switching gears" than actually completing the tasks.   Most of the time this extra use of energy goes unnoticed as people become accustomed to the stress of rapid task-switching in daily life.  However, you will achieve better outcomes and achieve more each day if you can learn to prioritize and concentrate on one task at a time.


Napier, N. K. (2014). The Myth of Multitasking. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking

Want to learn more about being a great student?  Try

New College Students and the Nature of Learning
I Hate My College Classes! Help! 
Improve Learning by Thinking About Learning (TEDx Talk by Todd Zakrajsek)

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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