Multitasking Is Overrated: The Disadvantages of Multitasking

Multitasking Businessman
“If you manage your multitasking, you’ll be much more effective than if you simply hop from project to project without driving them to completion.”

~ Mitch Thrower ~

Chris Asks:  My question has to do with a specific skill: multitasking. I am horrible at it. Can anyone in management still be a great leader without multitasking skills?

Joel Answers:  The value of multitasking is overrated. In fact, several recent studies indicate that it is better to focus on one task at a time. Multitasking has been shown to negatively impact memory and IQ, make it harder for you to learn new things, and even cause accidents, resulting in several states making it illegal to do two seemingly simple things at the same time: drive and talk on the phone.

Here are some of the disadvantages of multitasking:

  1. Attention and memory loss. People who frequently juggle various types of electronic communications and media have trouble focusing their attention, take longer to switch between tasks, and don’t perform as well on memory tests as those who don’t, according to a study by Professor Clifford Nass that was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  2. Poor cognitive performance. Zheng Wang, a professor at Ohio State University, recently released a study showing that multitasking made students feel more productive, while actually reducing their ability to perform well on cognitive tasks such as studying.
  3. Lost productivity. Contrary to what was previously believed, switching between tasks actually makes you less productive. Every time you switch from one task to another, you lose a little bit of time while your brain shifts gears, and all of this lost time adds up.

Instead of rapidly switching your attention between multiple tasks, as an executive, you need to be able to prioritize your tasks. By focusing on the things that are really important, you’ll be much more productive than your multitasking co-workers.

Learn how to manage your time instead of letting time manage you: Buy Joel’s book, Time Management Mastery, and learn how to budget your time and energy to accomplish the things that are most important to you.

Talkback: Do you multitask at work? Do you feel that the advantages of multitasking outweigh the disadvantages? Is there anything you’d like to ask Joel—about multitasking or anything else—for a future column?