Quit the Juggling Act: Why Multitasking, for Most of Us, Is a Myth
September 4, 2019
Have you interviewed promising job candidates who talk up their skills as master multi-taskers? You might want to take a closer look at their true abilities to get things done -- or to simply pay attention. In a recently released research paper from the University of Utah, psychologists David Strayer and David Sanbonmatsu throw cold water on the notion that multitasking is for overachievers.
The exhaustively reported study of over 300 college undergraduates ("Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking") asserts that those who identify as strong multitaskers surprisingly tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking and overconfident -- and that they generally mutitask primarily as a means to win praise from colleagues -- not to deliver results and meet higher-level goals.
Attempting More, Doing Less
Psych 101 and brain research factor into the multitasking myth. "There's a small number of people who are decent multitaskers," explains Arthur Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "But at best, it's maybe 10 percent of the population, so chances are, you're not one of them." Emotions play a role as well: Because workers believe they are getting more done by attempting more tasks, they receive an emotional boost. They may also engage, explain Strayer and Canbonmatsu, because, just grow bored of focusing on one thing at a time.
"Workers commonly listen to music or news while performing a boring job even though it may be distracting and detrimental to their performance," the authors explain. "A personality trait that may be associated with multitasking because of the stimulation that multiple tasks afford is sensation seeking." So while the work may suffer, multitaskers get a jolt from the feeling it provides -- and the juggling act quickly becomes a bad habit.
Breaking the Habit
Think your own habits might suggest the same? One way to keep yourself focused, writes Margaret Heffernan (author of Willful Blindness), is to place more value on production quality over time spent. "Make sure you're measured on output, not hours," Heffernan explains on Inc.com. "If you are rewarded for the quality of the work you generate, then you can reasonably argue that how you get that work done is your business." Another way to escape multitask insanity is to lead by example. If senior level executives make a point of leaving their phones at their desks during meetings or voice mono-task successes, employees will feel less expected to juggle so many assignments.
"The people who are most likely to multitask harbor the illusion they are better than average at it," says Strayer, "when in fact they are no better than average and often worse."
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