I see quite a number of job postings come across my email, whether in public health, international development, advocacy, or policy. But, one particularly striking commonality is the desire for applicants to be able to multi-task. More often than not, it’s explicitly stated as something like “should have strong multi-tasking skills” or “ability to multi-task.”
Before mentioning “multi-tasking’s” (and I’m putting that in quotes for a reason) effect on productivity and mental health, there’s one issue I want to address right up front. There is not such thing as multi-tasking. Research has shown that the brain can’t actually handle doing two complicated tasks at one time. This is part of the reason why trying to write, for example, is so difficult in a load office environment where you can hear co-workers’ conversations, which I wrote about in this post. Your brain is trying to write and listen to the conversation at the same time. You can’t do both, and as a result, productivity suffers.
If the brain can’t handle two complicated tasks simultaneous, what happens? The basic take-away is that you simply end up rapidly switching between tasks. As the American Psychological Association summarizes about the available research, task-switching or mental “juggling” actually increases the time it takes to perform the tasks.
Another drain on productivity is what multi-tasking does to one’s ability to filter information. Experiments by Eyal Ophir, a cognitive scientist from Stanford, among students has shown that heavy multi-taskers struggle to filter irrelevant information, and don’t remember information as well as their non-multi-tasking peers. Memory also worsens over time.
The worst effects of multi-tasking, I think, have to do with overall well-being. Heavier multi-taskers are generally more stressed, the result of always being hyper-engaged. Heart rate elevates, the result of chronically elevated stress hormones in the body. The other aspect, also related to stress, has to do with not being able to see the things happening around us (and probably less likely to appreciate them). Multi-taskers suffer from something called “inattention blindness.” Basically, if you’re walking down the street or in the park on your cell phone, chances are that obvious things in your surroundings aren’t registering. You could pass a rare flower, a young kid helping another on the playground, or a clown riding a unicycle, but none of this actually registers in the brain of an overwhelming majority of multi-taskers.
So, my one hope is that “multi-tasking” ceases to be considered an admiral quality or skill of employees or job applicants. Multi-tasking isn’t superior. It’s not a helpful trait that enhances focus or productivity. Let’s stop treating it as such.