How Multitasking Is Hurting Your Productivity and Your Mental Health
Despite its prevalence, multitasking has been shown to hurt worker performance while also hurting their mental health.
You’re in a webinar but have it minimized on your computer while also working on other tasks that need attention. You’re pausing to check social media during a team meeting. You’re responding to emails while a colleague asks you for help with a client they are working with.
We have all found ourselves in situations like these and likely considered them to be harmless or even successful examples of multitasking.
The reality may be more like this: You missed a critical piece of information in the webinar that led to a project that needed to be redone. Your employees in the team meeting noticed you disengage and left feeling disconnected. The client you were asked to help with received a diminished level of service since you weren’t actively engaged in the conversation.
Multitasking is an all-too-common practice in today’s world of constant information and stimuli bombardment. As we are asked to do more with our time, it can be difficult to focus on one thing at a time. Unfortunately, multitasking is not as efficient or effective as we would like to think. In fact, it hinders our ability to be present and effective in what we do.
Downsides of Multitasking
How Multitasking Can Affect Health Care Workers and Patients
- Reduced productivity. When we multitask, we are repeatedly switching our attention from one task to another and back again. This attention-switching takes time and effort and can lead to errors and mistakes. People who multitask have been found to be about 40% less productive than those who focus on one task at a time1. In other words, focusing on one task at a time can almost double your productivity over what you may be able to accomplish while multitasking.
- Increased stress. The constant reorienting of multitasking adds more stress to what we do and can lead to feeling anxious and overwhelmed. People who multitask were found to have had higher levels anxiety, unhappiness, and stress in both the short and long term than those who focused on one task at a time2. Multitasking has even been linked to increased production of the stress hormone cortisol3.
- Diminished Memory. Multitasking can impair the way our brains store information. Preliminary research has shown that our ability to store information in the short term as well as recall information in the long term is decreased when the information is taken in whilst multitasking4
With health care and behavioral health becoming ever more fast-paced and with a growing shortage of workers, it is tempting for health care employees at all levels to multitask. However, beyond the negative effects outlined above, research has shown that multitasking can lead to worse outcomes not just for workers, but for patients as well.
Studies have been able to observe that patients of health care workers who multitasked experience negative outcomes such as missed diagnoses and higher rates of needing additional care5
. Another study found that health workers who multitasked experienced higher levels of exhaustion in their jobs while also finding that their patients experienced lower satisfaction6
These studies suggest that multitasking is hurting organizations on both fronts, negatively impacting both providers of care and recipients of care. Society is recognizing the need for behavioral health treatment, even while the behavioral health workforce experiences shortages. In such a situation the temptation to multitask grows, as we cling to the hope that it will help us accomplish more with less. If not combatted, however, this mirage stands to worsen the problem, creating worse outcomes for patients and worse conditions for workers.
Tips to Stop Multitasking
- Focus on one task at a time. When you are working on a task, try to focus on that task and nothing else. Silence your phone, close your email, close social media. Find a place to work that is appropriate for the type of work you need to accomplish, whether that means a quiet place to do heads down work or a space where you can engage with others without extraneous distractions.
- Take breaks. It is important to take breaks throughout the day, even if just for a few minutes. Get up and move around, or step outside for some fresh air. This will help you to clear your head and come back refreshed.
- Learn to say “later”. It is important to appropriately manage your workload and learn to say “later” or even “no” to new tasks and commitments. If you are already feeling overwhelmed and at your limit, be honest about whether you can take on something new before saying yes.
- Set priorities. Take some time each day to set your priorities, such as listing out what you need to accomplish. This will help you to focus on the most important tasks and avoid getting sidetracked. If you feel yourself getting pulled in different directions, check back into your list, and refocus.
Multitasking is a pervasive but harmful habit. It may seem like we are getting more done by trying to do multiple things at once, but we are actually less productive and more stressed when employing this practice. While eliminating multitasking won’t solve every workplace problem, finding small but effective ways such as this can help us be at our best both personally and professionally.
- Multitasking undermines our efficiency, study suggests. (n.d.). Retrieved June 14, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct01/multitask
- Mark, G., Wang, Y., & Niiya, M. (2014). Stress and multitasking in everyday college life: An empirical study of online activity. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 41–50. https://doi.org/10.1145/2556288.2557361
- GoodTherapy | 6 Reasons You’re Actually Not Good at Multitasking. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2023, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/6-reasons-youre-actually-not-good-at-multitasking-0831167
- Uncapher, M. R., K. Thieu, M., & Wagner, A. D. (2016). Media multitasking and memory: Differences in working memory and long-term memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(2), 483–490. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-015-0907-3
- Kc, D. S. (2014). Does Multitasking Improve Performance? Evidence from the Emergency Department. Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, 16(2), 168–183. https://doi.org/10.1287/msom.2013.0464
- Huhtala, M., Geurts, S., Mauno, S., & Feldt, T. (2021). Intensified job demands in healthcare and their consequences for employee well-being and patient satisfaction: A multilevel approach. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 77(9), 3718–3732. https://doi.org/10.1111/jan.14861
Book Review: Getting Things Done by David Allen
In Getting Things Done, David Allen has woven together a thoughtful, relevant, and action-oriented plan to meet maximum productivity while eliminating unnecessary stress and toil. Allen’s 2001 personal improvement book brings decades of proven leadership consultation experience to the pages and its concepts stay relevant 14 years after publication, almost appearing timeless.
Allen begins by acknowledging that the demands of our day-to-day life has exceeded our brain’s capacity to manage them effectively, and while our brains are more stimulated than ever before, we also have more tools at our disposal to help manage these demands. Allen posits that instead of using our brain to constantly triage the decisions of our life, we use simple systems to allow our mind to be free of unnecessary worry and angst. In this place, he argues, our mind is best suited to make decisions that align with our values.
Systems of Workflow
Through the implementation of basic systems of workflow, Allen explains that mastering workflow prevents a person from being at the mercy of their circumstances. He states that dealing with the work involves five steps:
1) collecting things that command our attention;
2) processing what they mean and what to do about them;
3) organizing the results;
4) reviewing them for options for what we choose; and
These steps rely heavily on writing things down that are on our mind so we can organize them instead of letting them fester unnecessarily.
For each piece of work, he asks whether the work or idea involves an action step, if it does, he recommends doing it immediately (if it takes less than 2 minutes to complete), scheduling a time on a calendar to do it, delegating it, or deferring it to a time as soon as possible, if it is not actionable, it either goes into a “someday/maybe” folder, or gets thrown away.
Simplicity of “Getting Things Done” by Allen
The beauty of Allen’s work is in its simplicity. The systems he recommends that people employ are not dependent on technology – people could have implemented these into their lives at almost any time in history (and the successful people probably did). The physical requirements of these systems simply involve a bin for items that need to be decided on and a file folder for ideas to be saved for later.
Recommendations by Allen
Making these behaviors a habit is probably the most difficult part of Allen’s recommendations. For those that have relied on their brain to contain all important thoughts and actions in their life, it can be difficult to relinquish some of those tasks to a system. Allen also informs readers that clarifying one’s values is a critical part of this change process, and it doesn’t necessarily make life easier. Once you have clarified what is important to you in your life, it may actually make decisions more challenging because they will be made with more purpose, conviction, and thoughtfulness. However, his system certainly promotes a more mindful way of living. In this world of increased complexity and opportunities for distraction, I imagine we could all use a little more of that.