I’ve been reading studies like this for several years now. What once was considered a strength to tout on a resume or in a job interview is now a liability. People just can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What’s more, the Nass study suggests that those who try or are compelled to multitask aren’t able to focus and do anything very well. This implies huge implications for the way people work, for the environment they work in, and how they use technology to interact with each other.
1. How People Work: Over the last several years, people have assumed more and more responsibilities and are often compelled to split their attention between several different roles and objectives. Although this may have reduced head count (and the associated costs that go along with it), it isn’t a productivity enhancer—it’s a productivity killer. As a young worker I occasionally heard comments regarding colleagues from our peers that went something like, “John is a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’.” Meaning, John is a great multitasker and can do a lot of things, but none of them exceptionally well. I remember an old episode of the MASH TV series where Major Winchester said something like, “I do one thing at a time. I do it very well, and then I move on to the next thing.” He was summarily derided for taking such a focused approach. Nevertheless, that is the approach that seems to make sense in light of this recent survey—and a dozen others just like it.
2. The Environment People Work In: I’m not convinced “collaborative” work spaces are the most productive for every type of job role. My team works in the same space as the development team. Each morning as I sit down at my desk, one of the first things I do is plug in my headphones and try to zone out the rest of the room with Brahms, Rachmaninoff, etc. I need something to cancel out the office noise and conversations so I can concentrate, but I have discovered over the years that anything with lyrics is distracting. The dev team, on the other hand, likes the ability to talk to each other and bounce ideas off of each other. For them the open work environment really works—they even claim it makes them more productive. Over the years, I’ve had to learn to tune out my colleagues in order to get stuff done. Even with the headphones, I face a regular barrage of interruptions that pull my attention away from the task at hand. Of course, some days are worse than others, but once pulled out of “the zone” it takes a while to jump back in.
3. How People Use Technology to Get Stuff Done: Email, text messages, instant messages, and the telephone are all valuable tools to help us get things accomplished, but also provide multiple opportunities every hour for interruption and a lack of focus. How many times have you been in an important meeting only to discover that key players are checking their email or answering an instant message—or even worse, checking their smart phone every time it buzzes or burps? Nobody can focus on their smart phone and email at the same time they should be paying attention to an important presentation or discussion. I have to wonder how many bad decisions are the result of a lack of attention during critical decision-making times. Additionally, Nass suggests that the average professional spends 23 percent of the day in their email. I know I’m inclined to check my email every time I get a new notice, which is certainly my problem, but the volume of email I receive each day conditions me to try to address things as they come in. I wonder if more personal, face-to-face interaction wouldn’t be more effective and cause less interruptions.
I’m not sure multitasking is going away any time soon. However, if you think you’re a great multitasker, you’re likely fooling yourself. The odds are you’re not doing anything very well. What can you do within your organization to help your employees focus and be more productive?