The Myth of Multitasking

Trying to tackle that pile of work all at once could be slowing you down.

Most federal managers feel they have no choice but to multitask. Among the multiple projects with overlapping deadlines, performance reports that need to be filed and employees who require direction, tackling one task at a time seems like a luxury supervisors can't afford. But multitasking could be slowing you down and costing the government valuable productivity points.

This loss in efficiency stems from what researchers call "switchover time," the time needed to refocus on the original task after you've temporarily switched gears. In a 2001 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers showed that switchover time can take a couple of minutes for every change. Multiple switch-overs a day-even an hour-can sap a significant amount of productivity.

So what should managers do? Multitask less.

In an academic study published Feb. 14, 2008, in The Journal of High Technology Management Research, managers said the key to managing multiple projects is to minimize switchovers by being meticulously organized, methodical and focused.

One manager said he clears his desk of all documents or reminders of projects B, C and D while working on project A. Of course, this becomes increasingly difficult with technology in the mix. You might be able to clear your desk of documents, but it's much harder to keep project B-, C- and D-related emails from popping up in your inbox. Technology-related multitasking exacerbates what some call technostress in the workplace. Technology is effective and helpful in part because computers are designed to multitask, but the human mind is not designed the same way.

"The human mind can switch from one task to the other but it keeps the previous task queued somewhere in the back of the mind," Peter E. Brillhart wrote in a September 2004 article for The Journal of the American Academy of Business. "The more tasks we try to multitask the less efficient we become at performing any tasks . . . Laboratory research shows that multitasking increases stress, diminishes perceived control, and may cause physical discomfort such as stomach aches or headaches."

You might be reading this and sighing, convinced that you are the outlier-the rare, exceptional human whose productivity is multiplied by multitasking. Odds are you're wrong. A 2009 Stanford University study set out to determine what, exactly, effective multitaskers were doing better than everyone else. The study focused on people who multitasked extensively while using different forms of media (the computer, smartphones, etc.). To their surprise, the answer was-nothing. People who multitask at the highest levels are "suckers for irrelevancy," says Clifford Nass, a Stanford communication professor and co-author of the study. Apparently they are easily distracted and struggle to distinguish a worthy distraction from one that should be pushed aside. So the next time you're tempted to knock out a few emails before finishing up that report on your desk, think again.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive and now is a legal intern at the General Services Administration.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.