Driven to distraction by mounting multitasking
With evidence mounting against multitasking, bosses could do well to hit the pause button and spare staff from productivity-sapping overload
Technology is transforming our lives, making the instantaneous exchange of information and ideas commonplace around the world. But can the wiring in our brains keep up with the speed of computer-based gadgets?
In Asia, it's common to see motorists animatedly using their mobile phones as they drive; or school kids listening to music and texting while they bicycle across busy roads; or train passengers playing video games while listening to music and chatting.
That's nothing, of course, to the multitasking computers can do. Or what we can do with the help of computers. We can network with Facebook, send and receive e-mails, write an article, send a multimillion-dollar proposal around the world, watch YouTube and talk to colleagues, all more or less simultaneously.
But two recent news items suggest multitasking may not be a good deal or even clever.
British transport authorities increased the fine last week for using a mobile phone while driving to £100 (HK$1,212) plus three penalty points.
More interesting is a study from three researchers at Stanford University in California that suggests chronic multitasking could be bad for you even when you are not multitasking.
Priceonomics.com drew attention last week to the work of Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagner, which suggests multitasking can become chronic and affect your ability to perform ordinary tasks.
The researchers recruited students and identified them as either heavy or light media multitaskers depending on how often they used multiple streams of information - such as texting, e-mail, doing online research, watching YouTube, or listening to music - at the same time.
In the first experiment, they tested the students' ability to filter out distractions when given a task. They were asked to check whether a rectangle changed orientation or to identify a particular series of letters while being distracted. Those students who did not regularly multitask achieved higher accuracy and a faster response time.
Next, the students were tested on their memory. After seeing several series of letters flash on a computer screen, they were shown a single letter and asked whether that letter had been on a specified previous screen. The light multitaskers did slightly better than the heavy ones.
But the most striking finding was the number of false alarms by the heavy multitaskers as the tasks got more complicated. The researchers reported that the multitaskers "were more susceptible to interference from items that seemed familiar, and this problem increased as the memory load increased".
Finally, the students were asked to perform a combination of the two previous tasks designed to test their ability to switch between tasks. They alternated irregularly between performing the same task multiple times and switching back and forth between the two.
The results showed that the hardened multitaskers did worse: they were easily distracted and coped poorly with switching between tasks. As the researchers put it, frequent multitaskers "have greater difficulty filtering out irrelevant stimuli from their environment".
Companies might ask about the dangers of information overload leading to loss of productivity. Some psychologists say possibly only 10 per cent of the population may be good at multitasking.
A study several years ago by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found "workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers".
One of the "breakthrough ideas" of Harvard Business Review in 2007 was Linda Stone's idea of "continuous partial attention", which seems to sum up this electronic age, in which we are "constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events and activities in an effort to miss nothing".
The risk of missing nothing is that you do nothing well. One of the golden rules of experts in productivity is OHIO, meaning only handle it once - take something on and see it through to fruition. A US study said the loss of productivity from constant switching in multitasking and not completing anything well was as much as US$560 billion a year.
Some studies have shown that workers switch between tasks about every three minutes. Such switching may cause a 40 per cent loss in productivity.