Multitasking, not a hallmark of efficiency

On the telephone, you are discussing the schedule for a conference while you receive a student’s question via email. You are completely absorbed in your work with the dangerous chemicals in the lab, when a colleague comes in to ask you an urgent question. Or maybe you are trying to do some calculations, but every twenty minutes you feel obliged to answer students’ questions by instant messaging. The members of various professions nowadays take it for granted that they have to manage several tasks simultaneously throughout their working day. And especially many scientists are convinced that multitasking is the nature of their job.

“Multitasking plays a significant role. Especially for younger scientists who are involved in several projects, and often have not only to do research but also to teach and are not yet the head of a working group,” says psychologist Sabine Hoier, based in Kassel, Germany, who offers coaching and training services for local university staff, “most of them have to be always reachable for their teams.”

Sometimes, she considers that, under certain circumstances, multitasking might be helpful. “When I have to manage a challenging mental activity, glitches might occur, leading to disruptions. In situations like these, it can be helpful to do routine tasks until I get a new idea, a new beginning.” But, unsurprisingly, the same mechanism can also be problematic. “Some people tend to multitask when they have difficulty in overcoming their ‘weaker self’ in order to do something important.”

This analysis reflecting on some people’s difficulties in concentrating on a single task, concurs with results of a recent multitasking study co-authored by a psychologist from the University of Utah, David Sanbonmatsu. Students who performed best in a multitasking test where those who do less multitasking in everyday life and vice versa, according to one of his recent papers published in PloS One. The study also found that those who do most multitasking in everyday life think that they are very good in doing so. They also have a more impulsive personality structure, they look more often for changes and new things, they are more easily getting bored and tend to take risks.

Other studies also suggest that it is generally better to work on one task only at a time. For example a study conducted by the German Institute for Work and Health, in Berlin-Mitte, showed that too much multitasking can lead to overload and worse work results. This is irrespective of whether women or men, younger or older people are involved. The authors found their performance was worse while multitasking, as the test persons were stressed and their hearts were beating faster. One of the investigators Hiltraut Paridon writes: “Doing several tasks simultaneously increases stress and mistakes. This is not good for individuals because it is unhealthy. And it is not good for employers either, because stress leads to more accidents and that is expensive”.

Hoier knows that scientists cannot absolutely avoid multitasking as part of their work because they have to consider other people’s timetable in their own daily planning. Still, she also recommends: “Scientists should acknowledge that it is better to do certain things with concentration and without interruption. Especially when they are involved in challenging cognitive processes they need some warm up time in order to gain an understanding.”

She believes that it is therefore indispensable to protect yourself against all-embracing multitasking by creating undisturbed working periods: “It is often possible to find solutions in consultation with the team.” She suggests using a door plate, for example, to avoid being disturbed except in urgent cases. She adds: “You can also establish fixed consultation hours for the students and schedule discussions to certain times of the day so that they are not distributed all over the day.” She points out: “you should not have those meetings in those phases of the day when your power curve is very high. Use the best time to insulate yourself, if possible in a separate room without other people, telephone, email account.”

Another approach is do an analysis of the way time is spent throughout the day by doing an inventory. This could, in turn, allow to spare some time for reflection: “If you just take 5 minutes per day to reflect ‘What did I want to do today and what is my plan for tomorrow?’, you can write down your plans and what you have really done. And maybe you will find out that you spend too much time with your emails or whatever the problem might be.”

Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 by Urs Steiner

Janna Degener

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