How to increase your productivity – to multitask or not to multitask

Tasks are piling up and your desk is a mess. You need to finish many projects that you just started but it seems that you just can’t make your mind settled and focused on work. Is your brain at its best when focused only on one task at a time or is it efficient like your computer with its multiple tabs open simultaneously? The problem of media multitasking while working, driving, talking with others, has become not only a personal issue but an economical one as well; multitasking may affect our work productivity in addition to our quality of life.

Some studies have shown (Aral, Brynjolfsson & Van Alstyne, 2007) that multitasking is only useful to an optimal level . This means that low- and high-multitaskers were less productive than medium multitaskers.

This can be explained with the well known Yerkes–Dodson law and an inverted U-shaped curve which indicate that for optimal performance we need a medium level or arousal (Adler & Benbunan-Fich,  2012). Multitasking provides an increased levels of arousal that might be beneficial to a certain point, and after that point its effects become detrimental to your productivity.

HebbianYerkesDodson.svg

The attention is shattered and spread on to too many sides and your brain is spending much more time and effort to finish each individual task in comparison if each task was done individually with your full attention.

The inverted-U shape curve is only true for quantity  or productivity as the number of tasks finished, but when accuracy is measured, multitasking has only the negative impact (Adler & Benbunan-Fich,  2012).  This means that when it comes to your work quality, it is much better to focus on one or only few tasks than to increase the number of switches between different tasks. After all, the optimal level of arousal and multiple tasks may differ between individuals and for some two tasks simultaneously already may be overwhelming. On the opposite side, it seems that 2.5 % of the population can be categorized as “supertaskers”, due to their extraordinary ability not to be disturbed by a dual task while driving (Strayer & Watson, 2012). When it comes to gender stereotypes, women do not appear to function better than men when forced to multitask and they prefer single-tasking over multitasking (Buser & Peter, 2011).

Our brains do not like multitasking and constant interruptions. Information fatigue, decreased work quality and increased processing time while multitasking time are only some of the downsides of  the modern world.

In conclusion, even if you see yourself as a supertasker, bear in mind that many activities need in-depth processing and our full attention, starting from our interactions with others to our jobs and hobbies. Focusing attention to one direction only can provide a well known “workflow” and an increased enjoyment in what you do. In other words:  “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves,” A. Einstein.

References:

Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies70(2), 156-168.

Aral, S., Brynjolfsson, E., & Van Alstyne, M. (2007). Information, technology and information worker productivity: Task level evidence.

Buser, T., & Peter, N. (2011). Multitasking: productivity effects and gender differences (No. 11-044/3). Tinbergen Institute Discussion Paper.

Strayer, D. L., & Watson, J. M. (2012). Supertaskers and the multitasking brain. Scientific American Mind23(1), 22-29.

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