Multitasking is often lauded as being good for productivity and even necessary in our digital age, but is that actually the case? Here we look at the negative effects of multitasking on teams, and what your team can do instead.
In our modern, digital world, for many of us multitasking has almost become our natural state of being, both in our work and personal lives. We have gotten used to working while eating meals, we check our phones while watching TV or going out on dates, and we listen to music or podcasts while cooking or doing the dishes.
Part of this proliferation of multitasking is due to our technology. We simply have much easier access to information, entertainment, and even our work, at all times. The technology itself also seems to be designed for multitasking–letting us open multiple browsers, tabs and apps all at once.
But what is all this multitasking doing to our ability to focus and concentrate? We have been told for years now that multitasking is the new mode of productivity, and that in order to succeed we would have to get used to it. And each successive generation is hailed as the new “multitasking generation“–digital natives who can flit between virtual and physical worlds seamlessly–as if it harkens the next phase in human evolution.
Recent research, however, has come to the conclusion that multitasking is not all that it’s cracked up to be. And in fact, it may be harming people’s ability to focus and stay productive, especially when it comes to work.
The main stress points when it comes to multitasking are attention and workflow, which makes it a problem for teams and team building. In the following post we will investigate what the issues with multitasking are for teams, and what can be done to replace this way of working with something that is better and healthier for team environments.
What is multitasking?
First, let’s determine what multitasking actually is. This isn’t as simple as it looks, despite the fact that we all sort of know what multitasking means in popular usage: The act of doing multiple tasks at the same time. But actually, “multitasking” elides what’s actually going on when you try to do multiple things at once.
This is because, put simply, you can’t really do multiple tasks at the same time. What you’re actually doing is “switching” between tasks within a short period of time. And even if you think you are doing multiple tasks at once, there’s always one activity that will be moved to the backburner, even if it’s only for a short period of time.
I think we all realize that this is what’s going on implicitly, but let’s look at a concrete example from before: watching TV while eating dinner. These are two relatively simple tasks, and so we are able to switch between them rather easily. Still, in the moment when you look down to take a bite to eat, or feel the taste of food in your mouth, your focus slips away from what you are seeing or hearing on the television (even if only for a second).
So really multitasking should be called “task switching”, which sounds a lot less sexy and more burdensome. Again, the switch may not be as noticeable in some situations, but even then it is still happening. Which means that for tasks that require more attention or cognitive abilities, the task switch, and its costs, are going to be much greater.
The costs of task switching
When we talk about the issues with multitasking, what we mean is that there are costs associated with switching constantly between two (and especially more) tasks. These come in the form of time and energy. It actually takes time to switch gears from one task to another, and some researchers say that multitasking can eat away around 40% of an individual’s productive time.
Multitasking also takes mental energy as well. You have to mentally shift your mind away from one activity and towards another, which is not always so easy to do. A good example is driving while texting. Both of these tasks are complex, even if they require different areas of attention and focus. Trying to do them both at the same time is difficult as well as dangerous, as evidenced by the number of accidents that occur because of texting while driving.
Of course, the stakes are not always so high, but you see the point. With mentally complex tasks, our brains can only really focus on one at a time. Trying to do two at once will always require mental shifting work, and will inevitably result in one activity becoming more of a focus.
So let’s take these costs and apply them to work on teams, and see what the major effects on team productivity are when multitasking is present. We’ll look at four major areas that bear the costs of task switching:
1. Attention (Lack of awareness)
The first area that gets hit by multitasking is your attention. That is, we lose the ability to be present in what we are doing. This is due to the mental costs of switching back and forth, and the fact that we always end up focusing more on one task. This constant switching causes us to lose our attention on both tasks, since we are always trying to “catch up” mentally.
A lack of attention can make us make mistakes in our work. In fact, some research suggests that multitaskers do tend to make more mistakes. But even without making mistakes, a lack of presence and awareness of what we’re doing can actually lead to decreasing motivation over time.
2. Focus (Distraction from what’s important)
This leads into the next area that is affected by multitasking, which is focus. Focus here means our ability to discern goals and motivations, and to concentrate on the important tasks that fulfill them.
When we try to focus on more tasks at once, we tend to lose sight of why each one is important on their own, and the important processes within each task that make them special. The goal then becomes simply fulfilling the task, rather than understanding why each one matters.
Again, the long-run consequences of this are a loss of motivation and even burnout. You can’t really feel motivated when you’ve lost sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing, or why it matters outside of the fact that it needs to get done.
3. Workflow (Overloading of tasks)
Another effect of multitasking is feeling overwhelmed and overloaded with work. And this is where we see a lot of the effects of multitasking most clearly. If we take on too many tasks at once, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all that we have to do at the same time. Especially since, as we mentioned in the previous section, multitasking limits our ability to really perceive what’s important.
Multitasking also creates higher expectations, too. When work environments assume that everyone can take on multiple tasks at once, the standards will continually rise for the team, and create burdensome workloads for everyone. It also means that certain tasks won’t always go to team members who are most able to accomplish them.
Having more tasks to do at once is more stressful. And this stress most often leads to burnout, which is where someone feels so overwhelmed that they lose the motivation to work.
4. Productivity (Inability to get things done well)
What all this adds up to is a decline in productivity, which we’ll define as the ability to get things done well. You might be thinking that multitasking allows people to get more things done, which makes it a productive working style, but this would be wrong for two reasons.
First, it doesn’t allow you to accomplish more tasks. As we said before, you’re not really doing both tasks at the same time, you’re just switching. And switching takes time and focus away from both tasks. This is why many of us feel like we never really get anything done when we multitask, despite feeling more busy (and more tired).
Secondly, we certainly don’t get things done well when we multitask. We make mistakes, we can’t focus, and we easily get distracted. Plus we may be more stressed from the overload of tasks, which also leads to less productivity.
This isn’t to say that we can’t sometimes be productive when we multitask. However, that level of productivity isn’t sustainable, both individually or as a team. Eventually, you hit a wall.
What to do instead of multitasking
The obvious answer: focus on one task at a time. This is the only way to really focus on tasks, remain in control of workflows, and maintain productivity (as well as mental health). But this is easier said than done. As we said before, we live in a world that often incentivizes multitasking.
So the question then becomes: What can your team do to create an environment that limits multitasking?
1. Figure out what’s important together as a team
Multitasking, as we said before, makes it harder to figure out what’s actually important. And in fact, in many cases it might actually be used to paper over a lack of any firm goal. There’s just so many tasks to keep up with that you don’t have time to think about why you’re there. But if you take the step of clarifying your goals and roles as a team, you will be better able to know which tasks have priority and which don’t, understanding in each case what you’re doing and why you’re there.
2. Take creative-distraction breaks (together)
To be fair, sometimes we actually want the frenetic energy that comes with multitasking, or we feel a sense of boredom and want to find other things to do. These feelings are natural, especially nowadays, and it would be pointless to try to fight against them.
However, rather than simply multitasking with lots of screens and complex tasks, why not take a break and do a little creative self-distraction? This means taking short breaks that fuel your energy and/or creativity, like walks or drawing or having a conversation with a coworker.
Such activities can give you a break from all the overload, as well as provide an outlet for all that surplus energy that you have. Plus, they won’t end up draining you afterwards.
Puzzles, for example, are great creative distractions, and they also teach you to focus on each step of the process individually. When done with your team, creative distractions like puzzle-solving can be used to help strengthen your team’s interpersonal relationships as well (see below).
3. Create a more collaborative environment
Multitasking is not a team sport. In fact, use multitasking in the context of a team and it becomes irrelevant. Of course your team as a whole multitasks–it can do a lot of things at the same time. The huge difference is that a team can accomplish lots of things at once because it contains lots of different people.
In other words, multitasking is unnecessary when you have a functioning team. One person doesn’t need to be able to do everything, because they have other people around them to help out. So use the inherent power of teams: collaboration.
When teams create a collaborative environment, team members take on work and easily communicate when they need help, when they need some new ideas, and when they need to unload some of their workflow.
Collaboration also helps teams to concentrate better. Alone, you may be more in you head and move around from task to task. But when you work as a team, you have to take into account your other team members and the processes that are helping your team stay together.
4. Take the time to build real interpersonal relationships
This brings us to the last, and maybe most important thing your team can do to create a better and less multitasking-heavy team environment: focus on building real interpersonal relationships.
Multitasking as a phenomenon really only emerged once we started going online more. In other words, once we started spending more time on our own, and becoming more comfortable not being physically near other people. Which is not to take away from online relationships and communities, but there is a difference between a relationship online and one that is in the real world.
Relationships help connect us together, and can draw us away from some of the more harmful parts of online life and work. So having that support there is necessary, and for teams it is doubly true. Especially now, with remote and hybrid work, teams have to make sure that they are still building relationships in real time.
Making sure to plan regular team building is a first step. Even simply having coffee breaks or happy hours together sometimes can make a difference by strengthening the communicative and collaborative threads of your team. And of course, team building activities like the ones at Invite Japan would definitely help too.
We don’t want to come off like we’re wagging our fingers. We know the difficulties and pressures of modern life and work. Multitasking is here, and probably will be with us for a long time (at least as long as we’re looking at screens). However, it’s important to be aware of the negative effects of multitasking, and to know that there are ways to relieve some of the burdens that it causes.
What’s most important is to realize that not everything has to be the way it is. You and your team can work together to create the kinds of environments that you want, and the kinds of environments that are most conducive to you and your team’s success and productivity.