7 Reasons Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work

This is a guest article by Kristy Gayton from STARTplanner.

Multitasking has been praised by many as the secret sauce to reaching success at record speeds. But over the years, the multitasking myth has been dispelled.

Studies aimed at disproving the claimed advantages of multitasking have popped up, urging individuals to actually turn the process of multitasking inside out to see if it’s an ally or an enemy. As much as it can affect the individual, multitasking may also harm a business entity, regardless of whether it’s a family run business or a Fortune 500 company.

Still think you can do a great job on your project if you’re responding to emails while on a conference call and helping the colleague at the next desk? Read on as we discuss 7 potential drawbacks of multitasking.

1. Loss of focus

Employees and employers who frequently switch through various tasks and projects end up having troubles in focusing their attention.

One of the effects of multitasking is that they split their time and attention so far that they fail to extract key information and experience from each task they work on. And while many tasks on a project are repetitive and even somewhat administrative, the long-term impact of multitasking can prevent you from staying focused and completing the items off your list efficiently.

Whether you’re talking on the phone with a client or checking your email messages, choose to instead divide your time into chunks to deal with specific tasks and check them off your list one at a time.

2. Loss of memory

Multitasking can be one of the most active times for your brain. This can cause an over-stimulation of the cognitive function, which can lead to memory loss. If you are a chronic multitasker, think about what that might be doing to your long-term memory.

The rate of memory decline can be further amplified by other predisposing factors, such as age, environment, and existing health conditions.

If you are focused on a project and you constantly get sidetracked by intrusive coworkers, unrelated phone calls, or social media notifications, it’ll be challenging, if not impossible, to maintain the information you were working on as you were interrupted.

By having too many stimuli coming at you simultaneously, the brain cannot clearly distinguish between what’s vital to your project and what’s a random cat photo.

3. Decrease in productivity

Competing as a business predominantly comes down to who performs better. Project success is also affected by performance and as a project manager, you’d want to remove as many inefficiencies or “bugs” as you can from your work processes in order to get the most out of your time and team members.

Seamless operations, however, cannot be achieved with a lackluster workforce. If your employees are not performing at their optimal levels, a common culprit is multitasking. They might be harboring the view that juggling many balls is going to increase their productivity.

Time to put that right! Switching between tasks can be counterproductive to progress. Often, we aren’t even multitasking, just doing lots of smaller tasks in rapid succession, and there’s a cognitive cost to switching.

4. Disorganization

Team members will start doing a new task while existing tasks are still on their To Do list, unfinished. As a result, their workloads for the week become cluttered. New tasks come in, which further worsen the backlog of tasks that need to be accomplished. Time management tips only help when you have clarity about the work required and are organized enough to make steady progress.

The paper-free office isn’t a reality for most people (or even desirable to some). Tasks bring with them sticky notes, pieces of paper, printouts and so on.

Adding more into this situation creates a messy workstation, which ultimately circles back to a loss in productivity.

5. Inconsistent results

Multitasking may work to achieve the output in mind at times, but it also has the risk of producing inconsistent results. The danger lies in the fact that people aren’t really equipped with the mental capacity to identify the importance of each task and prioritize it accordingly.

Research by Stanford University concluded that heavy multitaskers couldn’t filter out irrelevant information and that affected their results in various tasks. Your results could be affected if you constantly try to keep several things on the go at once.

Let’s be real: how many times have you accidentally sent an email without an attachment because your brain has moved on to the next task, or because you’re also supposed to be paying attention to an all-hands meeting?

At some point, you’ll have team members focusing on the wrong items or tasks and foregoing core aspects of the project, creating a volatile future for the success of your delivery.

6. Heightened stress levels

While you don’t necessarily feel it right away, the habit of switching between tasks can create added stress to your already stressful work week.

As mentioned earlier, the brain gets a lot of input when you are multitasking so it gets exhausted more quickly and has a higher risk of burning out. For instance, taking important conference calls while trying to organize a spreadsheet for your upcoming presentation can put more pressure on you.

Choose to focus on a single task. If you are worried about forgetting things or not making enough progress, write down what you still have to do and get back to it later.

7. Increased Costs

One of the consequences of multitasking is the financial impact. The cost of multitasking can hurt the chances of survival of your business overall. In fact, according to a report by Kronos, a workforce innovation company, around £60 billion is lost by UK businesses per year due to time wasted by employees doing unnecessary tasks.

A cause of this is the lack of creativity and the ubiquitous nature of distractions in the workplace. When employees lose focus, their companies do not hit respective financial targets. This might have an impact on your ability to achieve project benefits as well, or bring your projects in on budget.

To avoid having to multitask at all, make sure your team has a project plan that guides everyone every step of the way, building in enough time to do the work in an effective manner.

Encourage your team to plan their daily workloads as well so that they won’t have to cram multiple tasks into one session of the day or week. Not only will this benefit your project as a whole, but individuals will also benefit from an improved career focus and better overall health.

Multi-tasking is not the same as managing multiple projects at once: you can juggle lots of priorities and still leave the office on time, but that doesn’t have to mean trying to hold lots of tasks in your head and doing several things literally at the same time.

Your next steps

  • Read the framework for managing multiple projects so you don’t get sucked into bad habits when you’ve got a lot on your To Do list.
  • Consider your project stakeholders and who is in your support network so you can delegate tasks appropriately.
  • Block out time in your diary for ‘bulk processing’ similar tasks to avoid the load of task switching.
  • Check out how it feels to only have one screen open at a time. Put your mobile device or phone down during Teams meetings or when you’re watching TV. Shake off that badge of being a master multitasker and see whether mono-tasking gives you better results and lowers your stress levels!

A version of this article first appeared in 2017.