Multitasking is so 2012, but we’re still doing it. According to a new study, that could be to our detriment—especially in the workplace.
The typical employee in an office environment is interrupted up to six times in an hour… something that can really take a toll on the quality of work. A new study in Human Factors found that quality of work went down with increased interruptions.
Cyrus Foroughi, co-author of the report who also is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, tested how interruptions affected people tasked with writing an essay. Along with colleagues Nicole Werner, Erik Nelson, and Deborah Boehm-Davis, he found that of two groups assigned to write an essay, those who were interrupted produced work of lower quality—and ended up with significantly fewer words in their essays.
“People don’t realize how disruptive interruptions can be,” Foroughi said.”There is value in determining whether interruptions affect the quality of the tasks that many people perform regularly, such as writing essays or reports.”
“Interruption can cause a noticeable decrement in the quality of work, so it’s important to take steps to reduce the number of external interruptions we encounter daily,” he added. “For example, turn off your cell phone and disable notifications such as e-mail while trying to complete an important task.”
A 2009 study out of Stanford found that two groups of 262 students who frequently multitasked in regular life did more poorly on a series of exercises than those who did not multitask. Only one of the exercises themselves actually involved multitasking, meaning that the frequent multitaskers were less effective even when they weren’t multitasking. Another study the following year by French neuroscientists found that when people multitask, the two sides of their brains tackle different tasks—meaning there’s a two-task limit on the brain. We’re not equipped to handle more than that.
Another recent study covered by Parade revealed that many people find that being alone their thoughts—perhaps the opposite of multi-tasking—can be difficult.
“We are actually healthier people when we disconnect… from technology and other people for periods of time,” said Stacy York, a Colorado-based therapist.
Kristen Fischer is the author of “When Talent Isn’t Enough: Business Basics for the Creatively Inclined” (Career Press, 2013).