All the "stuff" | Productivity | Thought leadership
15 July 2021
The following excerpt was originally published by Kevin Collins, CEO @ Charli AI for Forbes. Read the full article here.
The clock is ticking, and you have a lot on your plate. Those reports aren’t going to fill themselves out, the unread emails won’t magically disappear and there’s also next week’s audit to prepare for. That doesn’t even take into account all the personal stuff, like planning your kid’s birthday party and remembering to call your doctor for that long-delayed checkup — oh, and trying to figure out what’s causing that clunking noise under the hood of your car. (Or maybe that last one is just me.)
But it’s okay. You’ve got this, right? You can do it all because you’re a multitasking machine. Here’s the truth about multitasking, though: Unless you’re a computer, you can’t actually do it.
According to researchers, multitasking makes you less productive. We’ve known this for a long time. In fact, it was 20 years ago that psychologists Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans and David Meyer conducted experiments that involved young adults switching between different tasks, including solving math problems and classifying geometric objects. The participants lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. That lost time is sometimes called a “switch cost.”
Even though these switch costs might be very minor — “sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch” — they add up. The more you switch between tasks, the greater the cost in time. As a result, the psychologists’ research shows that “multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.”
A Siren Call That’s Hard To Resist
We’ve understood that multitasking doesn’t work for decades now, why has it become such a talked-about issue recently? Maybe it’s because today’s busy professionals have so many more things competing for their attention. Think about all the notifications that pop up on your monitor while you’re trying to concentrate. And then there are the countless virtual meetings that sometimes seem to be designed to derail your workflow.
Those virtual meetings have been a necessity with so many people working remotely. Some of us might be more productive (or at least think we are) when we’re working from home, but the siren call of multitasking is hard to resist.
As part of a virtual conference on computer-human interaction in May 2021, Microsoft released the results of a study of its own employees. To gain insight into how often people multitask during video meetings, Microsoft worked with researchers from Amazon and University College London to examine logs of email and OneDrive cloud file activity for about 100,000 U.S. Microsoft employees.
Every time someone in a Microsoft Teams video call edited a file saved in OneCloud or used their email, that action was logged as multitasking. The study found that people sent emails during 30% of the meetings. The study’s co-authors also looked at diaries or statements written by about 700 Microsoft employees. Around 15% said they believe multitasking makes them more productive.
We know this isn’t true from the 2001 research I cited above. According to psychologist David Meyer, even the brief mental blocks caused by shifting between tasks can cost people up to 40% of their productive time.
My own company, Charli, commissioned an independent survey to find out more about professionals’ habits while working from home. The survey was conducted in Canada, but the results are broadly applicable. We learned that more than three out of five (63%) professionals work on two or three different tasks at the same time — but not necessarily to great success. More than half (55%) of the respondents reported feeling like they aren’t in complete control of all of their tasks.