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Are You a Master Multitasker?

We'd all like to think that we're multitasking ninjas, but neuroscience tells us that's just not so. Research shows that only 2% of us have that kind of brain power. The rest of us just think we do.

As incredible as the human brain is, it has a tough time focusing on two demanding tasks simultaneously. Rather, your brain just bounces back and forth between tasks. There is a wealth of research surrounding “task switching.”

While you might not realize how much you bounce back and forth between tasks, every time you switch your focus, you’re fragmenting your workday. Communication tools in particular can be a productivity killer.

productivity interruptions

Recent studies show that the average office employee spends almost a third of the workday reading and responding to email. That number is 10-15% higher for remote employees. One analysis discovered that when we toss in other communication tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, that number jumps to 40%.

Researchers found that, on average, workers average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching and about 2 minutes using any digital tool before switching.

David Sanbonmatsu, David Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward and Jason Watson of the University of Utah's Department of Psychology dove deep into this problem in their study on how task switching impacts performance. They found that, in general, when we try to focus on more than one thing at a time, performance suffers.

Specifically, Strayer and his team studied people who drive while on the phone. Over the course of a decade, he and his colleagues had demonstrated that drivers using cell phones—even hands-free devices—were at just as likely to get into an accident as intoxicated drivers. Reaction time slowed, attention decreased to the point where they’d miss more than half the things they’d otherwise see such as a change in speed limit, a billboard or a child by the road.

They maintain that there is a tiny but persistent subset of the population—about 2% —who do not lose productivity, focus, and cognitive ability and in some cases they can even improve when multiple demands are placed on their attention. According to Strayer, multitasking it is more like I.Q.: most people cluster in an average range, but there is a long tail where only a tiny fraction—single digits among thousands—will ever find themselves.

The problem is that we all like to think that we’re in the 2% club. Ironically, people who multitask the least are the best at it, and the people who multitask the most are generally the worst at it. The super multitaskers are true outliers.

For the vast majority of us, interrupting that deck you’re working on to stop and check your inbox does more than just slow you down on the presentation. It actually zaps your cognitive resources. Constant task switching changes the structure of the brain physically and chemically impacting concentration, recall, and overall mental performance.

The more you bounce back and forth between tasks and email throughout the day, the more inefficient you get at each task. According to a University of California-Irvine study, we lose 20 minutes every time we shift our focus from the current task to our inbox.

Further research shows that the stress of email overload generates cortisol and that increase of cortisol makes it harder for the prefrontal cortex – the rational, thinking brain that weighs actions against consequences – to do its job effectively. We’ve all been there… pound out a response to an email and hit send before stopping to think about how that message may be received or whether that message should be sent at all.

Research shows that the single most effective way to boost your productivity is to manage your inbox the same way you manage other tasks in your day. Rather than attending to it every time a message pops up, turn off your notifications. Schedule blocks of time on your calendar specifically for email and treat it as you would any other meeting.


The 4 Most Common Multitasking Personalities

Some of us have a harder time staying focused for extended periods of time than others. But, new studies indicate that the tendency to multitask may be baked into our personalities. Strayer and his team found four types of people with a greater tendency to get caught in the multitasking trap:

  1. Approach-oriented or Reward-focused: Persons with a strong approach orientation, that is, a strong reward or gain focused motivational orientation, may be especially enticed to take on multiple tasks because of the high potential rewards. In contrast, persons who are avoidance oriented, that is, who are risk averse and sensitive to losses or punishments, may be more inclined to focus on a singular task rather than multitask because of the higher potential losses and greater effort associated with trying to do more.

  2. High-sensation Seeker: High sensation seekers may be especially apt to multitask for the sake of the more varied and complex sensations that are afforded by multiple vs. singular tasks. Impulsivity is a complex construct that is commonly defined a as a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions.

  3. 2% Club Member: These people are convinced they are in that tiny sliver of master multitaskers. People who chronically multitask are not those who are the most capable of multitasking effectively. To the contrary, task performance is negatively correlated with self-reported multitasking activity.

  4. Easily Distracted: Across all analyses, multitasking was most strongly associated with attentional impulsivity. Thus, the people who are most likely to multitask appear to be those who have difficulty focusing attention or concentrating on a single task.

The Bottom Line: According to these researchers, people don't multitask because they're good at it. They do it because they are more distracted.


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