multitasking and productivity

Why Multitasking Is Bad for Productivity

Study of multitasking and productivity finds that people who multitask the most are also most prone to losing focus.

By Amy Ahlberg

Why Multitasking Is Bad for Productivity

Even if you had this many arms, multitasking would be a bad idea.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—While drafting an important email, you’ve got your Internet browser open, occasionally break to instant-message with a friend, and even start chatting on the phone. Oh, and the TV’s on in the background, as usual. Sound familiar? Chronic media-multitasking—consuming several streams of media at once—has become the societal norm. The downside? Attention paid to all those media streams contributes to a lack of focus when it comes to that all-important email, your primary activity. A recent study published in the journal PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, reveals that the perceived link between multitasking and productivity isn't as positive as it seems.

THE DETAILS: Stanford researchers conducted a series of experiments to find out whether there are systematic differences in the way heavy and light multitaskers process information. They developed an index to identify groups of heavy and light media-multitaskers among 262 college undergraduates. They then tested the two groups. According to Eyal Ophir, M.S. a researcher with Stanford Univeristy's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab and one of the study’s authors, “What we found is that people who chronically engage in media-multitasking exhibit certain cognitive deficits: specifically, they have more trouble ignoring distractions, keeping irrelevant memories from interfering in their present task, and switching from one task to another, mostly because they can't help thinking about the task they're not doing." That last finding, he notes, is surprising, since switching your brain from one task to the other is the very definition of multitasking.

WHAT IT MEANS: The study’s results suggest that contrary to people's beliefs about multitasking and productivity, heavy multitaskers have trouble keeping things separate in their minds and focusing only on what is relevant to the task at hand. They are constantly thinking about the task they just switched FROM, along with the task they just switched TO. So should we stop multitasking altogether? The answer: It depends. In terms of media-multitasking, which was the subject of this study, the practice does seem to sacrifice focus for flexibility. So, "those who don't often multitask with media are better at deciding what they focus on, and maintaining their focus," says Ophir. "On the other hand, heavy media-multitaskers are more quick to respond to events in their environment—and therefore are also more distractible. Certainly, it is imaginable that one orientation is better suited to some settings, and the other to other settings.”


Published on: September 1, 2009

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In some situations

In some situations multitasking is deadly. I recently read of a well-known plastic surgeon who was killed when he accidentally drove his car over a cliff while sending a Twitter message about his dog. Most of us understand the dangers of multitasking while driving but many don’t realize that multitasking can be killing productivity.

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multitasking and memory

I have read in a health magazine (can't remember title) that multitasking threatens one's ability to store memories because the constant interruptions deny neural pathways the reinforcement they would get in focussed thought. The article suggested a correlation between jobs that require heavy multitasking and the incidence of Alzheimer's disease.

Your Mind Can Only Understand One Subject At A Time

Your mind can only focus to understand one subject at time.

If you are listening to a person on the phone and you do other things while you think you are aren't truly focusing on listening at all. You, your mind and your body, are too involved in the other things you are doing. Even if you can repeat the words you hear that doesn't mean you feel the meaning of those words deeply enough to understand what was said .

When you listen to some one in person, or on the phone and you mentally put together a thought, or an answer, and interrupt them with have not paid attention, you have not focused on your friend and what they were every saying.

We all need to focus on one thing at a time to deeply understand it. Being aware of what is around us does not mean we still can't focus to listen to our friend, or drive our car.


I just finished a temp job with a coworker who was always multitasking on the phone, computer and reading.While she was fast with all 3 media, she wpund up working late a lot to get the paper work done...I agree productivity suffers with multitaskers. They always look busy, but have a hard time finishing the job.

Wrong Question!

Since 90% of the world processes information sequentially, the test results were a no-brainer. The majority simply can't process problems or tasks in parallel, or simultaneously, like a properly written multi-threaded software program. However, the other 10% of the population CAN process simultaneously.

The original question should have been "WHO multi-tasks most effectively?" or "WHAT are the particular traits and characteristics of individuals who CAN multi-task effectively?"


agree w/Eeee WhitePlains - like the checklist idea - especially good for a procrastinator like myself.

Yes it is true

Yes indeed. Stop to write notes about another task but dont stop the first task to pick up another; neither will get finished
Plus keep a checklist of things to do each day and it will be great when you can strike it out asbeing done !

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