Liz Reusswig

The Problem with Multitasking

By: Liz Reusswig | April 4, 2013 | 
50

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 ‚Äď 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.

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50 Comments on "The Problem with Multitasking"

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jasonkonopinski
3 years 25 days ago

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.

lizreusswig
3 years 25 days ago

jasonkonopinski Says the guy directly in front of me Рdoing the exact same thing! :)

jasonkonopinski
3 years 25 days ago

lizreusswig¬†I have no idea what you’re on about. :)

lizreusswig
3 years 25 days ago

jasonkonopinski¬†Again with the “no idea” – hmmmph! LOL..this is fun – typing responses to each other while we’re literally 1.5 feet apart!

ginidietrich
3 years 25 days ago

jasonkonopinski¬†As long as she’s not driving!

lizreusswig
3 years 25 days ago

ginidietrich¬†jasonkonopinski¬†I’m bad, but not that bad! LOL

RebeccaTodd
3 years 24 days ago

lizreusswig¬†ginidietrich¬†jasonkonopinski¬†True story- the longest text I ever sent while driving without looking and without errors was, somewhat ironically, “oh my gawd I¬†almost¬†crashed my car.”

lizreusswig
3 years 24 days ago

RebeccaTodd lizreusswig ginidietrich jasonkonopinski LOL

Laura Petrolino
Laura Petrolino
3 years 25 days ago

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

JoeCardillo
3 years 25 days ago

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…..

lizreusswig
3 years 25 days ago

JoeCardillo Hoping to give that approach a try soon!

RebeccaTodd
3 years 24 days ago

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.

RizzoTees
RizzoTees
3 years 25 days ago

jasonkonopinski I’ve been listening to Shade 45 the whole way. So I’m ready to hit the bar lol

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski
3 years 25 days ago

RizzoTees Ha! We’re about to grab a BBQ lunch in Bristol.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 25 days ago

jasonkonopinski ūüėÄ

yvettepistorio
3 years 25 days ago

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.

lizreusswig
3 years 25 days ago

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” :)

alicia3303
alicia3303
3 years 25 days ago

Lisa_Catto hey

belllindsay
belllindsay
3 years 25 days ago

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

lizreusswig
3 years 25 days ago

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?! :)

CathyJennings
3 years 25 days ago

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?

lizreusswig
3 years 25 days ago

CathyJennings¬†In the morning, over breakfast! ūüėČ

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong
3 years 25 days ago

BreannaJacobs Agreed. It’s hard not to sometimes.

ginidietrich
3 years 25 days ago
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… Read more »
lizreusswig
3 years 25 days ago

ginidietrich Of course Рnote 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!

AaronFriedman
AaronFriedman
3 years 25 days ago

ginidietrich Omg this reminds me of an old conversation we had… I will follow up on that when my phone isn’t about to die LizReusswig

AmyVernon
AmyVernon
3 years 25 days ago

AaronFriedman ginidietrich LizReusswig sure, sure, a dying phone. A likely story

LizReusswig
LizReusswig
3 years 25 days ago

AmyVernon AaronFriedman ginidietrich right!? :)

AaronFriedman
AaronFriedman
3 years 24 days ago

AmyVernon sorry to leave you hanging ladies… Basically ginidietrich and I spoke a LONG time ago about online to do lists LizReusswig

AaronFriedman
AaronFriedman
3 years 24 days ago

And really… What I wanted to share with ginidietrich was Trello, because its INCREDIBLE! AmyVernon LizReusswig

AmyVernon
AmyVernon
3 years 24 days ago

AaronFriedman ginidietrich LizReusswig what is Trello??

LizReusswig
LizReusswig
3 years 24 days ago

AmyVernon AaronFriedman ginidietrich wondering the same!

AaronFriedman
AaronFriedman
3 years 24 days ago

AmyVernon I really need to write about this dont I… ginidietrich LizReusswig

AmyVernon
AmyVernon
3 years 24 days ago

AaronFriedman ginidietrich LizReusswig yes!

AaronFriedman
AaronFriedman
3 years 21 days ago

AmyVernon ginidietrich LizReusswig alright… I wrote the post about trello http://t.co/oGcl3gphaD

AmyVernon
AmyVernon
3 years 21 days ago

AaronFriedman ginidietrich LizReusswig I can’t tell – do you like trello ? ūüėČ

AaronFriedman
AaronFriedman
3 years 21 days ago

AmyVernon maybe a little :-) ginidietrich LizReusswig trello

LizReusswig
LizReusswig
3 years 21 days ago

AaronFriedman Well even after your wishy washy assessment, think I might give it a try! ūüėČ AmyVernon ginidietrich trello

Kato42
Kato42
3 years 25 days ago

ginidietrich LizReusswig We actually switchtask, which is even less productive! http://t.co/dGYRX98xXK

LizReusswig
LizReusswig
3 years 25 days ago

Kato42 Exactly! Cc ginidietrich

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
3 years 24 days ago

AllyK4 One of the hardest things on a Friday ūüėČ Thanks for sharing Ally!

RebeccaTodd
3 years 24 days ago

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.

lizreusswig
3 years 24 days ago

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

Penelopetvcwdr
Penelopetvcwdr
3 years 24 days ago
SusanNeal
3 years 24 days ago

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 ūüėČ 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.

lizreusswig
3 years 24 days ago

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!

dbvickery
3 years 20 days ago
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.… Read more »
LizReusswig
LizReusswig
3 years 18 days ago

LeoJTravis10 Thanks for your comments!

LeoJTravis10
LeoJTravis10
3 years 18 days ago

LizReusswig No problem!

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[…] 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 […]

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