As the pace of work increased over the past few decades, the ability to multitask became a desirable skill. An employee who can juggle different tasks simultaneously is often seen as an efficient, hardworking team member.
But not all experts agree that multitasking is a good thing for employees or organizations. Research shows multitasking can decrease employee productivity by up to 40%.
Find out more about the science behind multitasking and its impact on team productivity, plus ways to improve focus for your team members.
The myth of the “multitasking brain”
With new technology popping up to steal our attention all the time, multitasking may seem like an ability that any human would want to possess. The term originated in the 1960s to refer to a computer’s ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. But even in that case, it’s a misnomer – computer processors can only work on one thing at a time. This appears to be true for most human beings, too.
It turns out like computers the human brain can only focus on one thing at a time. So when we “multitask” most of us are doing a little bit of work on one task, and then switching to do a little bit of work on another task, but never truly doing two things at once. Ultimately, while some people can effectively switch between tasks faster than others, most employees need more time for their brains to change what they’re consciously focusing on. And unlike computers, when we move between tasks, we don’t usually end up finding more efficient ways to do them.
Even if we think we’re good at multitasking, that’s often just our brains rationalizing our need to get new information all the time, according to research. In fact, research shows that some people who believe they’re better at multitasking are much more distracted than those who claim not to be. One study showed that only 2.5% of people were able to drive a car effectively while performing another task – meaning there are pretty low odds that everyone in your organization is a truly effective multitasker.
5 ways multitasking affects employee productivity
So how does multitasking impact an employee’s ability to do good work? Here are five ways research shows multitasking can affect productivity.
Switching from one task to another can increase an employee’s likelihood to make mistakes. According to research, concentrating on more than one task at a time increases a person’s likelihood to make a mistake by 12.6%. Granted, this was a study about veterans with a traumatic brain injury being able to stay on a narrow walking path while being asked to remember a five-digit number at the end of the walk.
But the research found that multitasking made it harder for the veterans to walk along the path accurately – implying that we may all have trouble doing two things at once and doing them both well. It’s akin to the metaphor of being able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
While we may think that texting or responding to emails while we’re in a Zoom meeting will help us get more done, that’s not usually the case. Working on something else while we’re supposed to be paying attention to a task at hand can lead us to miss important details. Meaning — we have to circle back and ask for the information again. That’s a waste of time for everyone, increasing the time it takes to complete all of our tasks and decreasing productivity overall.
Lower quality of work
Making more mistakes and having to repeat tasks will decrease our productivity, but it can also lead to lower quality of work. If your organization is already pressed for time to get projects completed, it’s unlikely that your employees will have the time to go back and fix mistakes made due to multitasking.
At the same time, research shows that multitasking decreases our cognitive ability. Things like checking your cell phone while in meetings may lower your IQ by 10 points while you’re checking your social media or texting your friend about your next golf outing.
Another impact of multitasking in the workplace can be strained relationships between colleagues. The most obvious reason this happens is when employees aren’t paying their full attention to each other, it can cause misunderstandings and make individuals feel undervalued by their colleagues.
But another study found that students who multitasked on their laptops during a university lecture not only performed 17% worse on an exam than students who didn’t multitask; other students who saw them multitasking also performed worse on an exam.
Stress and burnout
It’s probably no surprise that employees who are constantly having their attention pulled between tasks are less happy at work. Being called out for low-quality work or poor performance can take a toll on anyone, especially when an employee feels that they have to work on multiple tasks at the same time to get ahead in the workplace.
There are also the impacts on relationships that multitasking can have on individuals, too. Employees who chronically multitask are likely to feel unfulfilled and stressed out at work, making them more likely to burn out.
How to help your team stop multitasking (and start monotasking)
The human brain is pretty good at switching between tasks – we’re easily distracted, which probably helped our ancestors avoid being eaten by predators when they were sitting around a campfire or dealing with invaders who arrived during breakfast. But that doesn’t mean the human brain is good at producing quality work in this process.
To help your team maintain or improve their productivity, it’s a good idea to encourage them to work on one task at a time, a process called monotasking. Here are a few ways to encourage monotasking in your organization.
Set realistic goals and deadlines
The best way to ensure your team members focus on one task at a time is to make sure they have enough time to complete a task before moving on to another one. Understanding how long it takes to complete projects and how many projects an individual can realistically complete in a set amount of time can help you set deadlines that everyone can be happy with.
Prioritize projects based on importance
If every project in your queue is “the most important,” it means employees can’t prioritize what to work on, which is a surefire way to get team members to multitask. Determine which projects are truly important and allow employees to focus on those, rather than having to put out multiple fires at the same time.
It may be difficult for employees to stop the distractions of office life from pulling them out of their work from time to time. But there are ways managers can reduce distractions. For instance, encourage employees to have work-from-home days or to work from quiet places in the office during set hours, or set aside blocks of time when employees aren’t allowed to call meetings so that individuals can focus on their tasks.
Encourage regular breaks
It may seem counterintuitive, but the human brain needs rest in order to function properly, so regular breaks are an important part of productivity. One popular way to ensure employees are getting enough downtime is through the Pomodoro Technique. This method, created by a software engineer in the 1990s, has the worker set a timer to focus on a single task for 25 minutes, followed by a five-minute break. It breaks work down into manageable chunks and encourages scheduled rest, which can help employees maintain cognitive function and concentration.
Adjust workflows based on employee needs
An important part of effective management is adjusting processes and workflows when the data shows that they’re inefficient. Employee feedback can also help you determine what’s stressing employees out or stopping them from being their most productive. Using workplace productivity tools, you get real data about productivity and help your employees find the best ways to work for their needs.
Encourage “brain training”
While we’ve been talking about how multitasking can hurt employee productivity, it ends up this isn’t always the case. In certain instances, it’s probably okay to check your phone or listen to music while you work, especially if the work you’re doing is relatively straightforward. And many people can train their brains to switch between easy tasks more quickly and complete them with long-term training. It’s important to help employees realize that some tasks (like stuffing envelopes) can be relatively unaffected by multitasking, while others (like driving a vehicle) can be hazardous.
Increase employee productivity with ActivTrak
Get better data about how your employees are doing with ActivTrak’s employee monitoring solutions for in-office, hybrid and remote workforce management. Get better visibility and insights into when and how employees function best, where they spend the most time on projects, and where they may be finding bottlenecks, so you can set better goals and improve productivity.
Schedule a free demo of our platform today to help you get your employees monotasking and back on track.