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Dr. Matt Grawitch: February 2011 Archives

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It never ceases to amaze me how the first thing some people say when trying to apply for a professional job is that they are good at multitasking. I’m not talking about walking and chewing gum at the same time, I’m talking about those folks who insist they can do two or more things that require effort at the same time.

When someone attempts to sell me on their multitasking skills, I simply respond by asking them, “Do you know how much your performance suffers when you do that?” I usually get the ‘you have no idea what you’re talking about’ look. And that’s where the conversation ends.

But, don’t take my word for it. The scholarly research is on my side on this one. For example, Paul Atchey, a Cognitive Psychologist, reports that performance can drop by as much as 40%.

Most of the published research uses a laboratory design with undergraduates performing tasks that have very little real-world application. However, my colleagues and I recently completed a study simulating the task of responding to emails while listening to voicemail messages.

People engage in this type of behavior all the time, and it seems simple enough. However, our results indicated that performance accuracy on email tasks decreases when you try to do that task and listen to your voicemail messages at the same time. You don’t slow down, but you make more mistakes. Furthermore, when trying to do two tasks at the same time, you experience greater stress from the tasks than if you do them sequentially, and then, not surprisingly you end up in a worse mood afterward.

The funny thing is that most people don’t even know they aren’t good at multitasking. They may report that they did just fine on a task but their performance says otherwise.

What does all this mean?

On the employee side, if your job requires you to multitask constantly, you might consider whether this has implications for your overall well-being, both mentally and physically. You also might consider whether there are ways to exercise some control over your work environment to minimize the need to multitask.

On the employer side, be cautious about hiring people who claim to enjoy multitasking. They may not be performing at optimal levels, and there may be corresponding costs to their health and well-being over the long term. Furthermore, most managers believe in the multitasking myth, so if you are one of them, you are likely creating an environment that requires or promotes multitasking. This may have unintended negative performance consequences for your employees and your department’s overall performance.

Employees, employers, I want to hear your take on multitasking. If you think multitasking is a good idea, tell me why. I want to hear the other side.

Photo Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryantron / CC BY-ND 2.0