Multitasking Is Like Working Drunk

The benefit: dramatically lower costs, faster processes, and higher ROI

Written by Diane Mehta

We pride ourselves on our ability to multitask as efficiently as computers: We text and walk, talk on the phone while working in Excel, or scan the news while balancing a conversation and tossing off quick emails to colleagues or friends. It turns out all that multitasking is not only a strain on the mind but intellectually harmful. A new study by Danish researcher Kjeld Fredens says multitasking damages your ability to go deep. And while it lets you do more in the short-term it makes you less productive in the long-term. It’s not just that we can’t pay attention to anything anymore or that there are more distractions (there are) but we seem determined to maintain a hyperkinetic pace and accomplish a lot at once.

Here’s William James on attention in Principles of Psychology (1890):
Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German. Sound familiar? Gadgets don’t help. Technology has become an enabler — fitness apps measure every step you take and give you feedback on your heart rate or calories burned, podcasts let you listen to stuff while you work, and Google encourages you to search, scan, and leap from site to site like a caffeinated rabbit. (As we speak I occasionally get bored and hit command-tab so I can swing over to other applications for a millisecond and tweak something else, right after checking my newsfeed in Facebook.)

The brain, though limitless, does only a handful of things simultaneously
Our short-term memory can only hold onto four or five things simultaneously. Say you’re looking out the window at the shifting clouds while writing a memo about your company’s future strategy in South Asia while balancing a conversation with a colleague and responding to an email. (I’m already confused.) If you think you’re going to write a winningly lucid and savvy strategy document you’re mistaken.

Multitasking is basically like being tipsy. Fredens’ research suggests that if you’re getting too many emails and are distracted all the time your productivity falls. Data backs it up: Researchers found that in the UK social networking sites cost companies £6.5 billion annually and that “extreme multitasking” cost the U.S. economy $650 billion annually in lost productivity. The lack of focus and concentration is a direct threat against good ideas that can create the future, argues Fredens. If we’re all sitting around shifting between thoughts, who will do the hard thinking that defines true creativity and come up with the thoughtful approaches we need for everything from corporate strategy to disease management?

Sorry, age plays no role
It’s convenient to think that the new plugged in youth (Generation Z, born after 1995) are hard-wired to be better at multitasking, and that it’s a generational thing. That’s just wrong — we’re all equally bad at multitasking. We may be more accustomed to thinking young people can do things better and faster and cope with it all without losing their stride but it only damages their abilities to think, just as it damages ours.

A few years ago Jordan Grafman, chief of cognitive neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, expressed his alarm to TIME magazine that kids who multitask will not do well in the long run. Fredens and Grafman are part of a wider movement, buttressed by decades of research, that is concerned about the impact of multitasking on our well being. Not focusing your attention means more errors and slower processing. (Think of those gymrats reading The New Yorker while running on the treadmill — are they really processing the reporting or just plowing through it?) Want to try focusing on something? Try one of the books on our reading list.

Related perspectives

Featured press