Have you ever taken inventory of the number of activities you’ve completed in one day? Switching between a text message, social media post, email, phone call, and getting your work done? Do you applaud your ability to manage tasks simultaneously, being responsive while getting your work done quickly and accurately?
Well, hold your applause.
It turns out that switching between topics and tasks all day long is actually taking a toll on your brain function, accuracy and, ultimately, productivity.
It doesn’t take a social scientist to figure out that even the brainiest CPAs probably have a hard time processing more than one set of information at a time. Our brains just don’t work that way, yet we’re still programmed to get more done in a shorter amount of time, so there really isn’t any choice but to multitask, right?
Not so much. According to a recent Fox News article, multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves because:
- you make more mistakes and have to redo work;
- you don’t retain information because your brain is focused on more than one thing; and
- it takes longer to do things because you are jumping back and forth so often.
Multitasking also hurts relationships. If you are having a meal with a friend and keep checking your email, text, or Facebook status, you aren’t able to focus on that friend. And, it can be dangerous, of course. According to the National Safety Council, driving while texting or talking on the cell phone causes 1.6 million accidents a year. While there are many ways to multitask, we’ll focus on two of the most prevalent: cell phones and email.
A Cell Phones Warning
We all know someone who’s had an accident while driving and talking on the phone, but did you realize that talking on your cell phone can also decrease your observation skills? A study from Western Washington University tested cell phone users’ observation skills by placing a unicycle-riding clown on campus. When asked, “did you notice anything unusual while walking across campus?,” they found the following results: 33% of pedestrians who were listening to music or walking alone mentioned they had just seen a clown on a unicycle, while nearly 60% of people who were walking with a friend mentioned the clown. Yet, among people who had been talking on the cell phone, only 8% remembered the clown.
Email Causes Multitasking Stress
Although it’s not nearly as risky as texting while driving, you might not be surprised that email causes extreme stress. Multitasking between email and other work can impact your day in very negative ways. Studies show that the average professional spends about 23% of the day emailing. Inspired by that statistic, researchers from the University of California at Irvine cut 13 employees off from email for five days, strapped heart monitors to their chests, and tracked their computer use. The results? They showed less physical signs of stress and were able to focus on each of their work tasks for longer periods of time. They switched screens to check email less often, thereby minimizing multitasking.
In a related study, researchers from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom measured the physical and psychological effects of email on 30 government employees. They tracked the blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol (a hormone related to stress) levels of the study participants, who were also asked to keep a diary of their work days. The results: although a single email was as equally stressful as a phone call, the amount of email that came at the study subjects throughout the day meant that email ended up being far more stressful.
Change Your Work Habits
Now that you know multitasking decreases your ability to filter irrelevant tasks, uses up a lot of your working memory, and decreases accuracy, what do you to do to stop it? After all, you may pride yourself on your responsiveness to phone calls and emails.
Instead of constantly switching between tasks, implement the 20-minute rule. Turn off the cell phone, especially email “beep” notifications, and allow yourself to focus on the task at hand for 20 minutes. Then, switch tasks.
- Avoid multitasking during meetings. Although meetings may sometimes seem irrelevant, focus on the meeting and not on your laptop, email, or any other technology. The meeting outcome will be more efficient.
- Say “not right now.” There’s nothing wrong with saying “not right now” or even “no” when you’re busy with something and tasked with responding to a particular matter. If you multitask and try to respond to every question or comment via cell phone and/or email, you’ll never get ahead.
We’re all operating under the misconception that multitasking makes us more productive, when the truth of the matter is it compromises the quality of your work and your brain power!
Technology has a lot to with multitasking. If you were stranded on a desert island with access to only ONE piece of technology, what would it be and why would it be important to you? Comment below.