Multitasking is ruining your productivity when you’re working remotely

De-stressing when you’re working from home with a brisk walk around the block is essential for productivity. There is, unfortunately, all the unwanted breaks. You’ve got partners, children and pets that want attention. Chores that haven’t been done. Notifications on your phone. Email alerts that have popped up. A tick-tock video that needs watching. The boss can’t see you and it’s just so tempting to switch your attention. Unfortunately, switching tasks it’s ruining your productivity.

What happens when you switch tasks?

You literally can’t do multiple things at once. You can’t watch a webcast for work and do the washing at the same time. You can’t text on your mobile phone and drive (safely) at the same time. What many people refer to as “multitasking” is something psychologists call “rapid task-switching”. Your attention and conscious focus can only be applied to one thing at a time and when you switch focus a little bit of time is lost. While many people assume that frequently shifting your attention between different information streams is good brain training for improving memory and attention, studies have found the opposite to be true.

According to Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein’s evidence, people’s “executive control” processes have two distinct, complementary stages. They call one stage “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”). Both of these stages help people to, without awareness, switch between tasks. That’s helpful. Problems arise only when switching costs conflict with environmental demands for productivity and safety.

One recent study (Uncapher, M. R. & Wagner, A.D., 2018) reviewed the current research on media multitasking and found that people who reported they were “heavy media multitaskers” performed worse on attention and working memory tests. “Heavy” media multitaskers performed about 8-10% worse on sustained attention tests compared to “light” media multitaskers. These tests involved participants paying attention to a certain task (such as spotting a specific letter in a stream of other letters) for 20 minutes or more. Researchers found that on these tests the ability to sustain attention was poorer for heavy multitaskers.

Researchers at the University of Sussex compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.

What’s the cost of multi-tasking?

Loss of concentration is the immediate impact of multitasking. Although the time to switch may appear small, they can add up to large amounts of lost time when you switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. The moment of task switching might seem small and efficient on the surface, but even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time (Meyer & Evans, 1994, 2001).

Mark, Gudith and Klocke (2008) report that it takes the average person 23 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. This is largely due to the neuroscience of information processing. Your brain continues to process information after you’ve stopped a task for up to 30 minutes. In order to truly focus on a new task the brain has to finish processing its information. This means a 30 second Twitter or LinkedIn message scan suddenly loses you 23 minutes. Even a simple process of procurement, Elfving and Tommelein (2003) found, when attempted with multitasking, time to completion increased by nearly 500% with reliability of target process time significantly decreasing.

While we are, indeed, being busy and being seen to be busy, in reality we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.

But I’m an exception! Aren’t I?

The famous Peter Drucker warned against multi-tasking in his 1967 book “The Effective Executive.”

“There was Mozart, of course,” Drucker wrote. “He could, it seems, work on several compositions at the same time, all of them masterpieces. But he is the only known exception. The other prolific composers of the first rank – Bach, for instance, Handel, or Haydn, or Verdi – composed one work at a time. They did not begin the next until they had finished the preceding one, or until they had stopped work on it for the time being and put it away in the drawer. Executives can hardly assume that they are ‘executive Mozarts.’”

Mozart and others like him are what the science calls “super taskers”. In a study that asked people to drive while being asked to remember sequentially presented words in their correct order while simultaneously solving simple math equations. Only 2.5% of people in the study showed no performance impacts when doing single of this dual task.

Our brains weren’t built to multitask. Just focus on one thing at a time.

Although attention makes the vast amount of information impacting our senses manageable, it does so at a cost. It results in bottlenecks that can both block awareness of important things around us, it results in increased human error, and it disrupts critical decision-making.  These limitations are most evident in dual-task settings, as doing two or more tasks leads to impairment in at least one of the tasks. When working from home or any other remote location, being aware that focus is your friend will lead to increased productivity.


Further reading

Uncapher. M. R. and  Wagner., A. D. (2018) Media multitasking, mind, and brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct 2018, 115 (40) 9889-9896.

Mark, G., Gudith D., and Klocke, U. (?) The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. CHI ’08: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. April 2008 Pages 107–110.

Rubinstein, J., Evans, J. & Meyer, D. E. (1994). Task switching in patients with prefrontal cortex damage. Poster presented at the meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, San Francisco, CA, March, 1994. Abstract published in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1994, Vol. 6.

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, 763-797.

Tombu, M. N., Asplund, C. L., Dux, P. E., Godwin, D., Martin, J. W., & Marois, R. (2011). A Unified attentional bottleneck in the human brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America108(33), 13426–13431.

Jan A. Elfving, J. A. and Iris D. Tommelein, I. D. (2003). Impact of multitasking and merge bias on procurement of complex equipment, In Proceedings of the 2003 Winter Simulation Conference, S. Chick, P. J. Sánchez, D. Ferrin, and D. J. Morrice, eds.


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