Microsoft Study Finds That Multitasking Wastes Time

There is a big misconception that multi-tasking is a more efficient way to work and accomplish tasks, yet many “multi-taskers” are wondering why they don’t have more time and balance in life. The truth is multi-tasking gives you the illusion of being more productive, but really slows down everything you do.

Recently the New York Times wrote an article on the matter and included the results of Microsoft’s study on Multi-tasking.

Excerpts from the New York Times Article:

In short, the answer appears to lie in managing the technology, instead of merely yielding to its incessant tug.

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

Another great article and executive summary was posted on the organizing site 43folders:


Slow Down, Multitaskers, and Don’t Read in Traffic – New York Times

'The Myth of Multitasking' by timothymorgan on Flickr

Yesterday’s New York Times front page ran an article pulling together the results of several recent studies looking at how interruptions and attempts to multitask can affect the quality of work as well as the length of recovery time.

Here’s one bit that really grabbed me:

“In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.”

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist and co-author, with Shamsi Iqbal of the University of Illinois, of a paper on the study that will be presented next month.

And, from a PDF of another of the studies cited (“Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI”), here’s a telling snippet from the article’s abstract (yes, most of the rest of it is well over my head):

“When humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task usually leads to postponement of the second one. This task delay is thought to result from a bottleneck occurring at a central, amodal stage of information processing that precludes two response selection or decision-making operations from being concurrently executed…These results suggest that a neural network of frontal lobe areas acts as a central bottleneck of information processing that severely limits our ability to multitask.”

My own feelings on the myth of multi-tasking are well-documented, but it’s fascinating to see research interest focused in this area — although it’s certainly not surprising, given its potential impact on knowledge workers and the industries that employ them. Again, from yesterday’s NYT article:

“The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year…”

“The information age is really only a decade or two old in the sense of most people working and communicating on digital devices all day, Mr. Spira said. In the industrial era, it took roughly a century until Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 published his principles of “scientific management” for increasing worker productivity.”

“We don’t have any equivalent yet for the knowledge economy,” Mr. Spira said.

So go ahead and turn off the email notification on your blackberry.
Use technology on your own terms.
Establish hours/days of availability and communicate them to your colleagues. Being on-call 24/7 will burn you out.
And establish priority levels based on type of communication. For example:
  • Email is for low priority communications
  • SMS is for medium priority communications
  • Phone-call to cell phone is for high-priority communications
Enjoy work/life balance.

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