It seems clear that drivers using cell phones are distracted. This is an argument that seems justified and is backed up by insurance industry statistics resulting in new laws across the country. However, have you stopped to consider what the impact of multitasking is on your overall productivity? If you consider that manner in which our routines, meetings or study habits are interrupted by the long-held belief that multitasking allows us to get more done–and more quickly–I think it’s worth discussion. Consider the following blog entry by Peter Bregman, a CEO consultant writing for the Harvard Business Review.
I’ve decided I’m going to follow his example and avoid multi-tasking for a week and see what results. What are you willing to give up?


23 thoughts on “Multitasking Lowers Productivity

  1. I honestly don’t know. I don’t want to make excuses but when you’re a college student who works two jobs, and has to deal with younger siblings and a sick Grandma it’s hard to decide what to give up. I guess I wish I was done with colleges so that I could just focus on work and family, but that isn’t going to happen for a while. As it is I’m supposed to be working on my midterm, but instead while researching I find myself remembering that I have other things due today too. And so I’m definitely someone that multitasks.

    However, the blog actually reminded me of something one of my professors talked about and that is “there is no such thing as multitasking”. He would argue that technically to multitask one would need to be able to do several things at once productively, but that is impossible because our brains can really only focus on one thing at a time. I told him that I certainly believe that I can multitask, such as doing homework while checking my email or how when I’m helping a friend move I’m technically exercising too.
    But again he said that I could only really focus on one thing at a time and instead maybe went back and forth. Either way, what I can agree with is the fact that multitasking does lower productivity.

    1. I too find myself thinking about everything else I have to due while I am working on one assignment. It explodes in my mind and disrupts my concentration on the one thing I am working on. Sometimes I think we have to separate ourselves from the big picture. I like to compare all the stuff I need to get done to a mountain of food. The only way to make it disappear is one bite at a time or one task at a time. Bit by bit the mountain decreases in size. Just have to prioritize and start with the most important and urgent tasks. Learning what to focus on and how to focus is crucial. Our minds like to wonder and it leads us to be nonproductive.

  2. I have never really taken the time to think about how “multitasking” effects what I do and my productivity until now. While analyzing my daily routine comparing what I actually have accomplished, there is a major disconnect. My to do list continues to grow, but I tend to cross of a few items per day. We are all busy. I am sometimes overwhelmed in my responsibilities of going to school full time, working full time, running the administrative side of a church, help run a non-profit, be a wife and a friend, and somewhere slide in some sleep. I think multitasking when you are busy is focused more on time management skills and being clear in priorities. We get our priorities jumped which cause stress. The blogger talks about how multitasking is not only inefficient but also stressful. Busy people are already stressed as it is; let us not add more stress to our lives than needed. Once we reflect and get a better grasp on our priorities it may allow us slowly to focus on one task at a time. I found an article that talks about the myths of multitasking and the author discusses how to change your brain and how over stimulated we are. I The article that I found of the myths of multitasking said there was a study done by the University of London and it stated, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” I do not want my multitasking to negate what I am paying for to go to college. I think I will try to adopt not multitasking for a week and see where it goes.
    If you would like to take a read, here is that article.

  3. I think this is true, I never really put it together that multitasking was actually reducing efficiency, but it makes total sense. I too have found myself trying to do too many things at once and forgetting certain things along the way. It is interesting because one of the requirements for the job i currently do is to be good at multitasking; i work in a bar and i couldn’t imagine trying to do the job without multitasking. There is usually so many things going on at once and you have to be aware of everything.

    It may be true that depending on what job you are doing, a certain level of multitasking may be necessary; i have been finding when i am doing school work and i try to do too much i lose sight of certain things, but working in the service industry i feel like it is almost a necessity.

  4. Over the years I feel like i have gotten quite good at multitasking. Every term I have to figure out how I’m supposed to work full time, participate in several different group projects for school, do the assigned readings, study for midterms and still make time for my family. I am almost to the point that I don’t need a calendar because I have gotten so good at remembering what needs to get done and how to maximize productivity through multitasking. I can truly say that the quality of my work doesn’t really suffer from multitasking either.

    On another note, I do kind of agree with what Michaela wrote above regarding there being “no such thing as multitasking”. I believe that the ability to switch from task to task is something that is learned and this skill is valuable in all facets of life.

    1. I completely agree with Noah; having experienced college and a job at the same time sort of just builds this skill/ability to do multiple things at once and still deliver quality end results. It is definitely a developed skill and perhaps there really is no such thing as multi tasking, considering it becomes a part of your life so much that we just consider it “living”

  5. I’m a bit on the fence about this whole issue. First of all, I agree that multitasking can be bad and reduce quality of work and productivity. On certain occasions, I have worked on multiple homework assignments at once while cooking dinner, switching loads of laundry, and taking the dog out; all things (other than the dog) could probably wait until after the homework is done. As a result, as someone mentioned before, I leave out some pieces of my homework, and often it takes longer than it would have if I would have focused solely on that. While that’s all well and fine to say, sometimes multitasking is a necessary evil. When I am a part of four group projects for school, I will take a break from whatever other assignment I’m working on to respond an email to make sure we meet our deadlines. With that being said, I agree that there can’t really be such thing as true “multitasking.” We aren’t computers, and don’t have enough hands to truly be engaged in several activities. However, since the ever-increasing pace of the world encourages multitasking, we continue to try to achieve this, and continue to work in a disjointed manner.
    The part I like the best (and least) about this article, is Bregman’s fourth realization from his anti-multitasking experiment: he lost all patience for things he felt were not a good use of his time. Is he kidding? I feel like that all of the time. He must live a very different life than I do, because when I am running on other people’s schedules 90% of the time, I don’t get to choose whether or not I partake in these wasteful activities, I just have to go with it.

  6. As I checked this and decided to count that I have 8 open tabs in my browser, a movie playing in the background, and I’m texting on my phone. I full heartedly agree that I could have finished an outline in 1/3 of the time had I just shut off all other distractions and solely focused on that. Perhaps, “multi-tasking” relieves some anxiety. If you are feeling pressure to finish multiple projects, having a hand in all at once makes it feel like you are being productive and have it under control even if you’re not being as efficient.

    The article seems to be of the zen mindset, “wherever you go, there you are.” Focusing on being in the moment and all that (for example, if the bus is late it doesn’t help to complain or check the time every minute. The bus arrives when it does and you have no control) However, I don’t think out society really fosters the “in the moment” philosophy. I feel that it is viewed as a good thing to multi-task and as others mentioned, in certain professions/areas of life, it is a necessity.

  7. I really think multitasking can be a quality and a weakness. It depends how important your tasks are. This ability to manage different things is really different depending of people’s background. I can see it with my older brother who had to take care of me when was young. He had to cook, control and plan his night with a constraint. Today, he is a multitask person, way better than me. The more responsibility you have young, the better. Multitasking can be a weakness, in my opinion, because, obviously, you can’t totally focus on two tasks at the same time. That’s why I try to rate my different tasks from important to not important depending on the deadline. When i have found my maximum speed, i try to improve tasks that can be enhance. Eventually, i think multitask is an unavoidable ability we have to deal with everyday.

  8. I think nowadays, lots of people have to do multitasking due to heavy responsibilities from school, work, or family. It seems like multitasking become common in our life, so lots of people have fallen into the habit of doing several different tasks at the same time. I have lots of friends who like to do multitasking and often think they can handle it very well. However, I don’t think multitasking makes us more productive because I often find that when a person is multitasking, he or she actually has more trouble in focusing and does things less efficiently. For example, one time a friend tried to talk to me on the phone and work on other tasks at the same time. During our conversation, she asked me a same question three times without noticing it and also lost focus on her other tasks. Personally, I used to like to do multitasking because I thought that would help me save more time and get things done faster. However, I found that when I attempted to complete several different tasks at once, I could make mistakes easily. Moreover, as what the author points out in the article, multitasking is stressful. Therefore, I have been working on avoiding multitasking. I feel like it is also a challenge on how to manage my time efficiently.

  9. I agree with Bregman’s multitasking lowers productivity. I had this experience when I was in my previous job. Multitasking skill is very important in serving food industry. In the job there are many things around that need to be taken care immediately. Especially, during lunch hours, I had to handle everything at the same time, such as serving the food, doing the register, and cleaning ups. Although multitasking saves time, it is very easy to make mistakes. Bregman brought up a good point to avoid mistake and how to perform things better. In Bregman’s perspective, he found out that doing one thing at a time is more efficient and effective. I totally agree with him. I noticed that whenever I multitasked, I would forget other things along the way. It is believed when I focus into one thing once, the better performance it would turn out to be.
    Gregman is also making a good point, “My stress dropped dramatically. Research shows that multitasking isn’t just inefficient, it’s stressful. And I found that to be true. It was a relief to do only one thing at a time (Bregman).” I feel the same as the author. When I am doing one thing at a time, I would not feel stressful. The more relax I feel, the better performance I can do. It is believed multitasking not only makes stress level goes up; it also creates anxiety that would lower our overall productivity.

  10. Bregman brings up a great point how a person’s IQ will drop when multitasking, and I have experienced this throughout my college career.

    When I was a freshman I would try to accomplish two things in every lecture: listen to the professor while jotting down extensive notes on the powerpoint slides. What I ended up with was a notebook filled with statements that had no proficient explanations to them, causing me to only remember the general aspects of the course with no reasoning behind them. Nowadays I have flipped this routine, allowing myself to listen to a professor explain why something is relevant, and only use the notebook to write down what I find relevant.

    But we now live in an era where multitasking only gets easier and more distracting. I can have a lengthy conversation with someone while simultaneously checking my facebook and twitter updates, email, and text messages with out getting out of a chair. Our mobile devices keep us constantly available, making our work more integrated into our lives, causing more obstacles to get us distracted.

    I believe I am willing to give up my iphone while working. My job is basically playing dodgeball with 5th graders, which generates a lot of creative ideas for my work at my internship. When I get inspired, I take out my phone and start typing my ideas in my notepad and message a few co-workers to bounce off, causing my work to become…sloppy. And it is not a good thing when you are not paying attention when a class of 40 4th graders play dodgeball.

  11. Multitasking is something I do on a constant basis. While juggling work and school, I still have to make time for family, friends, and church. Having too many tasks at hand can take away from the experience that one would otherwise have. We manage to learn multitasking and get by with it, but does it really benefit us? For the past few terms I was wondering “am I really getting everything I could out of school??” There is so much we could learn and accomplish if we make specific time for each activity instead of doing everything at once (or too much of anything in that matter).

    But….when it comes to cellphones, FB, other social networking sites, as distracting as they are, we call them our little saviors. An assignment that woudld take you 3 hrs to complete is so much more pleasing if you can take little breaks in between 🙂

  12. I often find that multitasking is just an excuse to distract myself from the goal at hand. Right now I am “multitasking” as I write this blog post and complete a paper for another class. In all honesty I’m just trying to avoid writing the paper any way possible and computers make it so damn easy. At work though I do what I would consider true multitasking, taking calls and working tickets simultaneously. While my overall quality of work certainly degrades I have to balance that with my available time to complete all my needed tasks.

  13. I have to agree with Anazstasiya. Although the author has some good points, some of what he considers a positive, I would consider a negative.
    Where Bregman states “Fourth, I lost all patience for things I felt were not a good use of my time,” I see as a weakness. Coming from someone who has always worked in the customer service industry, there are times you HAVE to be available for others, sometimes even longer than you feel necessary. This can majorly slow you down and FORCE you to have to multitask even more so than before to make deadlines. In that instance, I feel unitasking can be way more stressfull.

    Personally- I see the aspects that Bregman brings up, and in a perfect world (or Hawaii or Italy), people would be perfectly fine with just getting tasks done when you can vs. Meeting exact deadlines. However- the typical American expectation is to get numerous things done by a certain time.

    For me- I go to school full time at night, work full-time in an office during the day, and work in a bar during the weekends, as well as have a puppy. Group projects are the death of me (or maybe the death of my washing machine), as I literally only have Saturday and Sunday Mornings free, and Sunday and Tuesday nights free…so making time for others means I’m cutting into my very few and far between hours of free time and/or relaxation. Do I have a crazy schedule? Yes. Will I carry this crazy schedule forever? No.

    But- I will say although I agree in that productivity may be less during times of multitasking, some people are more efficient with busier schedules. I for one am because without having something holding me accountable to meet a deadline, I naturally was born a struggling procrastinator. With my crazy busy schedule, I just live out of a planner crossing off my check list one item at a time. So does that mean I don’t *truly* multitask? Maybe. But with the help of current technology, some forms of multitasking are easier than others. Using a computer, you can start to download a large spreadsheet while finishing up another project, saving you a few min. here and there, which, quite potentially could be the breaking point on winning a new client over.

    Did any of you read David Silverman’s rebutle to Peter Bregman’s article (In Defense of Multitasking)? He basically states that while unitasking in a perfect world sounds great..without the utilization of multitasking, projects may not have the most accurate information, shuttle’s could misfire, and more mistakes could be made. I think this philosophy is more accurate. Imagine how many accidental deaths the military could have caused because they decided to put an urgent “abort mission” Morse Code message on the back burner until after they finished their mission?

    On another random note- my sister and her husband went to Italy this last summer. They didn’t quite get to see everything they wanted to because one of the days they decided to travel to one city, then take the bus from one location to another city. After waiting for about an hour and a half, someone came out the backside of a building for their smoke break. My sister and her husband did the best they could to show the man their Scheduled bus map of the city and it’s routes. They asked if the time was right on it, or if it had been changed. After a min. talking to this man, the man replied by shrugging and saying “it’s uh..they just don’t stop here sometimes”. It’s amazing the difference between a deadline driven country, and a unitask country…As a unitasker- you will always inconvenience someone else… so really- is it worth it?

    David Silverman’s blog is here:

  14. I agree with the fact the multitasking sometimes leads to less quality on the different tasks that are being worked on. This is because the ability to focus on several things diminishes as the number of tasks we work at the same time increases. However, multitasking is necessary now days with all the different responsibilities individuals have. It seems as there is not enough time in one day to accomplish all that is necessary and multitasking is a must. As our society continues to evolve, multitasking is a skill that must be acquired and developed as well.

  15. This is definitely an interesting topic that is easy to relate to. You dont realize how much multitasking you do in a day until you actually think about it. I personally do a lot of this everyday, mainly because I have such a tight schedule that involves juggling work, school, and my 4 year old son. Aside from the texting and driving habit, which I honestly need to stop myself, there is one particular task that comes to mind that would benefit greatly from this approach.

    Virtually every time I sit down to do my homework I find myself becoming occupied with other things. This could be brought on by my computer, a book or article, downloading music, talking/texting on the phone, or a number of other things. If I could separate all outside distractions, I feel like my school work would get finished much sooner and lead to less nights of lost sleep and more time to spend on the things I enjoy doing.

  16. I think that multitasking can influence your productivity because it makes you focus on different things at the same time. People can be more or less good in multitasking and I think it is a skill that you can learn. For instance, a woman is more able to be multitasking than a man. Is it the reason that there is more women in Public Relation? Maybe. Indeed, when you are in public Relation, you have to handle different things at the same time. That’s why it is considered as one of the most stressful job.

    But when you are working for a company, you have to be multitasking. Indeed, you often have a call at the same time that you write and email. Or a colleage that asks you for help when you are reading a contract. Multitaking is part and parcel of the workplace.

  17. I consider that “multitasking” to be a fiction. Maximum a human can handle is two tasks, before rapidly going down hill in productivity. Why two? Because we have two sides of the brain that can each handle one task.

  18. for me i never txt and drive, his ways are helpful, also there is a videos about txting and driving tests. it shows you how people are self confident about multitasking but when they start the test they fail all of it and ran over a demoes of human and animals

  19. I apologize, this is my last post so I’m having fun

    I agree that mufti tasking takes away from focus and overall production. I have ADD and have horrible attention and try to do way too much and generally fail if I don’t monitor the tasks I take on. Cell phones kill me. Literally. The radiation they put off and the fact that it steals my attention from me constantly.

    I suggest smoking marijuana

    This was mentioned comically in the article, but the reason that this guy wrote this article is because he smokes marijuana and that why he made the marijuana joke. There is this weird thing about people that smoke marijuana, they can’t help but make weird jokes and posts on the internet about it. Kind of like I’m doing right now

    Marijuana has helped with my ability to stay focused on one task for 10 years now. Just depends if you want to take on the responsibility of self-medicating yourself.

    Fun, and intuitive article, thank you Prof Hardy.

  20. I’ve heard this many times but this article gives a good breakdown and personalized experience of why multi-tasking really isn’t productive. I used work in a position where multi-tasking was required. I would have to review and analyze documents, perform calculations, update information into the system among many other tasks, along with taking and returning customer’s calls and receiving about 100 or more emails per day from customers and other employees, which all required follow-up. To be honest, I hated it. It was so stressful! It also never made sense to me as an effective process. I previously worked in the same position, only for a different line of business, but with the same company. With that position, their process was much more efficient since I wasn’t responsible for the customer contact – there was a call center for that. I could then focus on all of the other work to be done. It made much more sense and eliminated the multi-tasking aspect, making it a much less stressful job.

  21. I definitely agree with this. I think this is an especially good habit to get into as a manager. So many times, emails come through and managers rush to answer every question. Some say that you should actually wait to return emails until 24 hours after (this would drive me crazy). A lot of the time, there are fires that can put themselves out without your involvement, so letting emails sit, ends up saving you time in the long run!

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