The Multitasking Myth - Part 1

Why does multitasking seem to be necessary in everyday project work?

There are basically two reasons for multitasking – understood as working on several different tasks simultaneously.

a)      The work environment leads unavoidably to multitasking

Everyday office life forces project team members to multitask. The allocation to several different projects at a time and the double burden of working for a project and for a department mean that team members have to accomplish different tasks simultaneously. Disruptions are also caused by phone calls, colleagues who have “just a quick question”, notifications that there is new e-mail in the inbox and the typical background noise in open plan offices.

b)      Project team members turn themselves more or less voluntarily into multitaskers.

Some team members are easily distracted – whether for reasons of procrastination or because they already have a shortened attention span. Short periods of concentrated work are interrupted by looking at the phone or at their Facebook wall. Problems, however, do not only arise from non-work activities. Focusing on a complex topic can also be interrupted by zapping from program to program and from task to task.

Why is multitasking considered a problem?

Many people think that multitasking is an indispensable quality for project managers to stand their ground in everyday project work. In many applications, applicants point out their multitasking skills.

However, if complex knowledge-based tasks are interrupted for only three minutes – e.g. by a phone call – it takes about two minutes to get back to the point where the task has been interrupted. If such interruptions accumulate during the day, time loss can add up to 40 percent of the actual labor time. (Source: University of Bonn)

In IT, this phenomenon is known as “thrashing”. It means – simply put - the fact that an operating system needs more time to switch from task to task than to perform the actual tasks. Continuing context switches produce switch costs, which result in the decrease of efficiency – concerning the machine as well as the human being. (Source: California State University)

The context switch does not only lead to a decrease in efficiency, it also produces an increased level of error susceptibility. Moreover, team members never arrive at a “state of flow” – a mental state in which they can focus completely and obliviously on a complex task. Flow is perceived as a very satisfying work situation. A study carried out by the University of Stanford states that switching between different tasks reduces people’s attention span. At a certain point, multitaskers can't stop searching for new stimuli anymore. Such people can hardly be assigned to long-term projects and complex problems, because they are no longer able to concentrate for a sufficient amount of time.

And there is yet another problem that comes along with multitasking: Especially when switching tasks is imposed onto project team members by the work environment, their perceived stress levels are significantly higher.

After all, the human brain does not have the ability to multitask, says Ernst Poeppel, psychologist at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich (Bild der Wissenschaft 5/2008). The brain is physiologically unable to react to several things at once.

In the second part of our mini-series about multitasking, we will have a look at ways to increase efficiency in project teams.