Multitasking Does NOT Increase Productivity!

man multitasking

Is multitasking your life? Photo credit: shutterstock.com

Last week, I talked about daily, mainly electronic, distractions keeping you from focusing on your work. That post may have resonated with some of you – I know I struggle with turning off distractions and multitasking, too. I want to continue on the theme of obstacles to productivity and talk about the fallacy of multitasking.  

What is Multitasking?

Hmmmh.  Checking your Facebook page while you are talking to your mom on the phone; answering emails during a team conference call; texting during class; watching a TV program with a news ticker scrolling at the bottom of the screen while playing a game on your smartphone or tablet device – any of these sound familiar? Ever forget where you were or what you were thinking as you shift from one activity to another?

Your ability to “manage” all of these things at the same time means that you are being productive, right? You are “multitasking” and, thus, it’s all good.

But it’s not. Really. 

Merriam-Webster defines multitasking as “the performance of multiple tasks at one time.”

That sounds efficient, doesn’t it? In fact, people used to be proud of saying that they could multitask easily — it was a desired skill for some jobs! But time, and science, have shown that people make more mistakes when they multitask — not doing either task well (Napier, 2014; Rubenstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001).

As we’ve learned more about the science — what’s happening in your brain while you juggle your work and tasks — we’ve come to realize that multitasking is not the answer to being productive. In fact, it is estimated that it takes “20-40 percent more time to finish a list of jobs when you multitask, compared with completing the same list of tasks in sequence” (Mind Tools, 2016). Multiple studies support this conclusion (APS, 2016; Draheim, Hicks, & Engle, 2016; Johnson et al., 2017; Kalish & Aebersold, 2010; Napier, 2014; Rubenstein et al., 2001; Yen et al., 2017).

It takes “20-40 percent more time to finish a list of jobs when you multitask, compared with completing the same list of tasks in sequence” (Mind Tools, 2016).

Multitasking comes down to concentration and focus. 

Concentrating on one task at a time allows us to give that one task our undivided attention. When we are focused, we are more efficient – we lose that efficiency when we switch between multiple tasks. Switching from working on a written paper to checking email, for example, requires our brains to have to focus on a new activity and then reset back to what we were doing before we switched activities.  When interrupted, I’m sure you’ve noticed it may take you some time to refocus and get back into the swing of what you were doing. According to Yen et al. (2017) multitasking could be defined as a “rapid cognitive process of task switching” (p. 1264).

Task-switching is the “ability to allocate attentive resources to several tasks sequentially and fluently reallocate attentive resources from one task to another” (Draheim et al., 2016, p. 133). In other words, the ability to remember what you were doing, why you were doing it, and what you were thinking about what you were doing before you got distracted by another task that then demanded your attention (Draheim et al., 2016). 

Life Imitating Theory? As I was writing this section I was in the middle of a sentence when the phone rang. I took the phone call, hung up, and looked back on this page … “now what was I going to say?” I thought! I had to laugh — what a perfect example of the brain needing to reset because of task-switching! 

Research shows that, despite what we think, we don’t do our best work when we switch our focus back and forth among projects. As Draheim et al. noted, “task switching
is … relevant to your ability to perform your job” (2016, p. 134). I wrote a little about this in my post on how to stop procrastinating

Let’s see what the research shows about multitasking and task-switching. There are many studies in neuroscience and the health sciences such as psychology, medicine, and nursing about multitasking, task-switching, and work interruptions. I’m just going to talk about a few. 

Multitasking = Task-Switching

“When we think we’re multitasking we’re actually multiswitching. That is what the brain is very good at doing – quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.” 
― Michael Harris

According to multiple research studies, the effort of “task-switching” from one task to another takes MORE time, than just focusing on one task at a time (APS, 2016; Draheim, et al., 2016; Kalish & Aebersold, 2010; Napier, 2014; Rubenstein et al., 2001).

Dr. Nancy Napier, Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University, wrote a post about multitasking and stated that “the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. … [With each task switch] there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain” (para. 4).

Dr. Napier goes on to caution “that start/stop/start process is rough on us: rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds), it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy sapping” (Napier, 2014, para. 5).

If you want to test your ability to multitask, Dr. Napier provides a short exercise in her post to show you how multitasking affects your concentration, effort, and mistakes. 

One reason that working on multiple tasks at once is inefficient is that our working memory, the “ability to simultaneously maintain, process, and manipulate chunks of goal-relevant information,” is limited (Draheim et al., 2016, p. 136). It can only handle so much information (3-5 chunks) at any one time; though some people have a larger working memory capacity than others (Draheim et al., 2016).

Multiple tasks are multiple chunks of information. The brain has to “reset” with each start/stop/start process related to switching from one task to another. The brain has to reconfigure the working memory — it has to refocus by remembering all the “rules” of the activity such as, how to perform the first task, why the task was being done in the first place, etc. — from the task it was just performing. Draheim and colleagues called this deactivation of one task set and reactivation of the new task set (i.e., the rules). 

Nurses are Multitaskers

“You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once.” 
― Gary Keller  

The neuroscience research study findings have implications for nursing students, faculty, and practicing nurses.

Students: For students, I will tell you that you can’t concentrate on what you are supposed to be learning if you are texting during class or redirecting your focus to your phone or computer or whatever! Didn’t get that important point or concept? How could you when your brain is trying to process too many chunks of information at once? – from your instructor, your text messages, your calendar alerts, taking notes, responding to an email, etc. 

BTW: Don’t think your faculty don’t know that you are multitasking … we know and we don’t like it. 

Faculty: A lot of multitasking goes on at faculty meetings, too! Faculty are so pressed for time – too many things to get done – that we bring work to faculty meetings. Grading papers, checking email, organizing class notes, etc. I have been guilty too, I admit it. The person leading the faculty meeting doesn’t like it either. 

But, think about it. Multitasking during class or a meeting is disrespectful to the instructor or speaker, the person chairing the meeting, and to the people who are being attentive! Your full presence is required to grasp concepts and understand those subtle points that may make a difference in someone’s life. Faculty need to provide input to make informed decisions that will affect both faculty and students.

Nurses: Yen and colleagues (2016) studied nursing workflow as it related to multitasking and task-switching. In the course of a normal workday, nurses are called upon to juggle multiple tasks at once including communication with multiple stakeholders, patient education, medication administration, documentation, and hands-on tasks. Because errors can occur when one’s focus is fragmented, frequent interruptions or multitasking can affect patient and nurse outcomes. Yen et al. studied nursing workflow “to develop strategies to minimize errors and maximize processes that enhance patient safety” (p. 1264). 

Yen et al.’s (2017) conducted a time and motion study to observe and evaluate clinical workflow (defined as the duration of tasks or steps for a process or an event). An electronic standardized time tracking tool was adapted for a medical-surgical unit, three student data collectors were trained, and inter-observer reliability for data collection was validated. This was a pilot study conducted in one unit of one hospital for the purposes of testing the data collection method, so the generalizability of the findings is limited. Nevertheless, I felt their methods were strong, so let’s look at their findings. 

Multitasking is a nurse's life!

Multitasking is a nurse’s life! Photo credit: shutterstock.com

Yen and colleagues (2017) found that on average, nurses multi-tasked almost 40% of a 4-hour time frame for an average total duration of about 45 minutes (range, 14.6-109 minutes).

Self-directed multitasking occurred when the nurse chose to complete two or more tasks simultaneously, such as communicating and/or consulting with other healthcare professionals while reviewing the patient’s chart, charting while walking, assessing patients and documenting findings at the same time, and communicating with patients while administering medications.

Task-switching was more likely to occur between activities that were related “such as reviewing and charting electronic health records, switching between direct patient care activities (e.g. procedure, vital sign, medication administration)” (p. 1269). As task-switching between related activities is not a complete 180 from the previous task, this brain refocusing may not have as negative an effect on the brain as activities that are diametrically opposed. 

Unexpected interruptions occurred in the form of phone calls, “mini-conversations” at the medication cart, electronic reminders or alerts, or an urgent task. Yen et al. (2017) made the point to say that we need to look at the consequences of seemingly innocent changes in practice that might increase the frequency of unexpected interruptions and could lead to patient care errors. For example, in an effort to improve patient satisfaction with nursing care, the hospital may implement a nursing hotline or give patients direct access to their nurse via a pager or cell phone. “Such interruptions could potentially contribute to safety issues, particularly if nurses are performing critical procedures or preparing complex medication regimens” (p. 1269).

In a larger study of seven nursing units in two hospitals, Kalish and Aebersold (2010) also found that nurse multitasking led to errors.  On average, “nurses were interrupted 10 times per hour, or 1 interruption per 6 minutes. … Nurses were observed to be multitasking 34% of the time (range, 23%–41%)… the error rate was 1.5 per hour” (Abstract). Johnson et al. (2017) studied medication errors and noted that 99% of nurses were interrupted during medication administration resulting in both procedural and clinical errors. 

Not all studies found that interruptions caused nursing and patient care errors (Hopkinson & Jennings, 2013). Interruptions were documented as a normal part of nursing life and could be decreased with targeted interventions when administering medications. But the conclusions from Hopkinson and Jennings’ integrative state-of-the science paper stated that the study methods from the papers they reviewed were not robust enough to suggest that interruptions led to an overall increase in patient care or safety errors. The bottom line: more research needs to be done regarding the effect of multitasking in nursing. That’s a good thing. 

Okay, there is good neuroscience research about the way the brain handles information. And I believe there is enough good research out there reporting that multitasking is not what it is cracked up to be! And from your own experience, I think you would agree. 

Research has shown that when we divide our focus among many tasks, we can’t give our best to each task. Instead of being efficient and productive, we are inefficient and easily distracted. We only have so much “bandwidth.” So what can you do to help your brain out?

Tips to Eliminate Multitasking

The key to doing your best work is to focus on just one thing at a time

When working on a specific project, do your best to focus your concentration on only that task. Make yourself disable distractions so that you won’t be interrupted by sounds, vibrations, or visual cues. Commit to a certain amount of time to focus on a specific task then go to your work setting, set a timer, and begin! 

Quick Tip: When I’m trying to keep my focus, I write any random thoughts that come to mind in my planner on a daily notes page or in my Rocketbook Wave Smart Notebook, so I don’t forget (e.g., schedule an oil change for the Hyundai; get milk; call Anita about dinner on Tuesday). This way I can capture those thoughts and continue to concentrate on my work! If you don’t use a planner, you can just use a notepad or post-it notes — whatever works for you. 

Remember I mentioned that one study talked about related activities as being less disruptive? Use that finding to your advantage and try to block time for similar events so your brain doesn’t have to work so hard at resetting from one activity to another. Time for studying, writing, searching the literature, watching TV or surfing the ‘Net can all be deliberately grouped into sessions. 

More tips on how to focus in a future post. 

Don’t miss the rest of the posts this month! They will deal with how to manage your time and increase your productivity at school, work, practice, and life. Sign up to receive an email when new posts come out on my welcome page Click Here.

References

Association for Psychological Science (APS). (2016, November 10). Even small distractions derail productivity. Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/even-small-distractions-derail-productivity.html

Draheim, C., Hicks, K. L., & Engle, R. W. (2016). Combining reaction time and accuracy the relationship between working memory capacity and task switching as a case example. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 133-155. doi: 10.1177/1745691615596990

Hopkinson, S. G., & Jennings, B. M. (2013). Interruptions during nurses’ work: A state-of-the-science review. Research in Nursing & Health, 36(1), 38–53. doi:10.1002/nur.21515

Johnson M., Sanchez P., Langdon R., Manias E., Levett-Jones T., Weidemann G., … Everett, B. (2017). The impact of interruptions on medication errors in hospitals: An observational study of nurses. Journal of Nursing Management, 24(21-22), 3063-3076. DOI: 10.1111/jon m.12486

Kalisch, B. J., & Aebersold, M. (2010). Interruptions and multitasking in nursing care [Abstract]. Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, 36(3), 126-132. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1553-7250(10)36021-1

Mind Tools Editorial Team. (n.d.). 10 common time management mistakes: Avoiding common pitfalls. Retrieved from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/time-management-mistakes.htm

Napier, N. K. (2014, May 12). The myth of multitasking. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking

Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-97. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0096-1523.27.4.763

Yen, P. Y., Kelley, M., Lopetegui, M., Rosado, A. L., Migliore, E. M., Chipps, E. M., & Buck, J. (2017). Understanding and visualizing multitasking and task switching activities: A time motion study to capture nursing workflow.  American Medical Informatics Association Annual Symposium Proceedings, 2016, 1264-1273. eCollection 2016.