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Liz Reusswig

The Problem with Multitasking

By: Liz Reusswig | April 4, 2013 | 
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The Problem with MultitaskingHi, my name is Liz and I am a persistent multitasker.

I can hear all you fellow multitaskers droning, “Hi, Liz.”

They say the first step to changing is admitting you have a problem. That’s the issue, though, is multitasking a problem?

I’ve always been proud of my “ability” to multitask, do I really need to change?

So, I started a quest to determine whether or not multitasking is the nefarious culprit keeping me from greater accomplishment.

I began my research online – more than 19 million hits on Google – and found the majority of articles and research are solidly against multitasking.

Multitasking and Productivity

One noted researcher, Clifford Nass, professor at Stanford University, has extensively studied multitasking.  He concluded, “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

However, I did find one opposing view. Monica Smith, is a professor of anthropology at UCLA and in her book, “A Prehistory of Ordinary People,” she makes the argument that humans have been multitasking since prehistoric times, mostly out of necessity.  Smith contends, “Multitasking is what makes us human.”  But, just because we CAN multitask, SHOULD we?

If I’m being honest, my own experiences are a testament against multitasking. I can’t count how many times I have burned my hand while cooking while trying to focus on something else, usually helping with homework. And although I’ve never walked into a fountain while texting, I know I am significantly more productive when I am focused on one task or project at a time.

This is probably true for most people.  Eliminating distractions makes a tremendous difference in our ability to focus.  Even if multitasking is hard-wired into us, we should be mindful of how and when we are using it.

Multitasking and Creativity

I was sure I would find a similar amount of research slamming multitasking as a creativity killer.  I was surprised.  It seems, when it comes to creativity, there may be some benefits in multitasking.

In a very interesting Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss declining creativity in the U.S. and its causes. Not surprisingly, an overuse of technology and media are considered creativity killers, and certainly are common multitasking tools.

However, it is noted, “Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate.”

This sounds a lot like multitasking.

Again, I looked at my own experience and observations and found there may be some truth to the benefits of multitasking for creativity.  I often turn to sketching (really doodling) when trying to concentrate. And there have been many times I’ve had bursts of creativity while doing mundane tasks. I’ve also noticed similar results from my kids.

Multitasking and Civility

Although my research in this area is mostly anecdotal, when it comes to multitasking and civility there really is no grey area. Multitasking when dealing with others is just plain rude. How often have we experienced the pang of disappointment when someone we are talking to divides their time between us and a computer screen or smartphone or what have you?

It’s downright annoying to go through a checkout line while the cashier is chatting with someone else, or worse is on the phone! This has become a prevalent societal problem. Look around any restaurant and count how many people are looking at a phone or device instead of the people they’re with. We are teaching our kids, and ourselves that it’s acceptable to check out when a distraction comes along.

I’m guilty of this, too. I’ve typed emails while on the phone and had more “bad mommy” moments than I’d like to admit. Times when I’ve put off my girls to deal with an “oh, so important” call or email. I did recently own up to this bad habit and have given my kids permission to put me in a “work timeout” when I’m caught multitasking during my time with them.

Well I’m convinced – multitasking is a problem for me. Step one complete. The next step? Making a change…!

What about you? Are you mired in multitasking? Perhaps you’re a master juggler? I would love to hear your thoughts.

About Liz Reusswig


Liz Reusswig is the owner of EMR Strategies, a small business consulting firm, and is the founder/owner of Kids Theatre News, an informational website for the theatre community. She loves helping people discover the power of social media and online engagement. Liz lives in Pennsylvania with her hydrogeologist husband, their two theatre kids, and loyal dog, Coco.

49 comments
dbvickery
dbvickery

I've always been a multi-tasker, and I definitely see where my daughters inherited that gene. The key is to keep it at "productive multi-tasking" without imposing upon the people you should be paying attention to right in front of you.

I've always been a big fan of chat windows when responsible for a remote development team. I could work in multiple problem domains at the same time. And I definitely will use workouts to kickstart the creative engine...when staring at a screen just isn't doing it!

I do think multi-tasking is brutal in terms of the stress it adds, though. I've frequently mentioned that I know my heart rate and blood pressure go up a few points for every ding I hear...doesn't even have to be my phone/tablet/computer. It's the new Pavlov experiment...

SusanNeal
SusanNeal

Couldn't agree more - when I mentioned this in a post recently I had a few responses from committed multi-taskers who couldn't see a problem with it, but I think apart from a few simple tasks that are so habitual we can almost do them in our sleep, it's usually a bad idea. I've walked into lamp-posts using my mobile ;) A techie friend of mine said that even computers don't really multi-task - they just do one thing after another VERY quickly. I know I'm more effective when I focus on one thing at a time. 

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Great post Liz! I am a habitual multitasker as well.  I back this up with self-diagnosed ADHD and a surface knowledge of neuroscience. But the truth is- yesterday afternoon, when I shut everything down but this one project and was the only person in the office, I got more done in 20 minutes than I often do in a couple hours. So while I hate to admit it, I will come to Multitaskers Anonymous with you.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks

@AllyK4 One of the hardest things on a Friday ;) Thanks for sharing Ally!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

Please let me be around the day you DO walk into a fountain while texting. I've done quite a bit of research on the multitasking topic and have found that, yes, it does help creativity in some cases, but the cons outweigh the pros. For instance, if I were to sit down and write a blog post while my email is pinging, Twitter is popping up, and Facebook alerts are in my face, it would take me 10,000 times longer to get it done. I used to work that way. Now I focus for big chunks of time and check email and the social networks only three times a day. When it gets difficult is when I have to get on Facebook or Twitter to do something for a client and I look up 20 minutes later to find myself down some rabbit hole.

CathyJennings
CathyJennings

Interesting post, Liz!

One of my pet peeves is people who "multitask" when they are with others.  The message it sends is "you are not important enough or interesting enough to have my full attention" -- which is certainly NOT what most of us want to convey to others.

As for the creativity part -- totally agree!  Swimming, running, hiking, doing dishes or showering always get me thinking creatively instead of about all the mundane details of life.  Something about that movement.  But, texting while trying to be creative, not so much.

So, when does the multitasker support group meet next? 

belllindsay
belllindsay

I'm really NOT good at multitasking. I need to focus on one thing. I sort of envy people who can do it. 

yvettepistorio
yvettepistorio

Great post Liz! I'm a terrible multi-tasker. I try, but  when I focus on one project at a time, it turns out better and I'm more efficient. And I HATE when everyone at a table is looking at their phone! I'm guilty myself of this sometimes, but I do try to keep my phone in my bag/pocket, pay attention to and enjoy the people I'm with.

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

Oh I'm terrible when I try to do more than one thing at a time. Especially when I'm on the phone....I sound like an idiot if I'm trying to do something else.

However I seem to be fine when I concentrate on one thing at a time in small bursts, basically just takes practice. Haven't seen any research on whether that's acceptable from a scientific perspective though.....

Laura Petrolino
Laura Petrolino

I'm embarrassed to admit that I started reading this while on a conference call (as just a passive listener....in my defense)

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

I have it on good authority that Liz is writing, editing, and updating from the backseat of a car barreling down 81S en route to Knoxville at this very moment. 

Ahem. 

Latest blog post: Poetry Friday: Ezra Pound

lizreusswig
lizreusswig

@SusanNeal LOL - a lamp post! But, yes - so very hard to get away from trying to do it all at once!  We have to support each other in the idea that it's ok to do one thing at a time! 

lizreusswig
lizreusswig

@RebeccaTodd It's our high energy desire to do all we enjoy...I think we should do the first meeting in Chicago!  I'll even walk into the fountain for @ginidietrich!  LOL

lizreusswig
lizreusswig

@ginidietrich Of course - note to self, save fountain bath for visit to Chi-Town! LOL

Seriously, though - I plan to move on to Step 2 and rework how I operate - it's going to be tough, but I suspect well worth it!

lizreusswig
lizreusswig

@belllindsay Me, too!  And usually because I want to be able to engage in the work, activities, events, etc. I find interesting and enjoyable.  Maybe it's one of those Type "A" things?! :)


lizreusswig
lizreusswig

@yvettepistorio I know what you're saying and it's so frustrating!  It'll be interesting to see if I can adopt a new more focused approach...and don't feel badly - we're all guilty these days of "phone gazing" :)

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

@JoeCardillo Yes that is my style too, Joe. I can be hyper focused and work intensely for a short burst, then I need to switch it up.  And often get up and move about. 

lizreusswig
lizreusswig

@jasonkonopinski Again with the "no idea" - hmmmph! LOL..this is fun - typing responses to each other while we're literally 1.5 feet apart!

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  1. […] recently wrote about the downside to doing too much in a guest blog (The Problem with Multitasking) on Spin Sucks and have been developing a plan for eliminating unproductive multitasking.  My […]