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The High Cost of Multitasking: 40% of Productivity Lost by Task Switching

This article originally appeared on the Wrike Outcollaborate Blog on September 24, 2015. It was written by Andrea Fryrear, content marketing for MarketerGizmo.


The temptation to multitask is ever present in a modern office, whether that office is at a kitchen table or in a massive collection of cubicles. From email and chat notifications to the siren song of social media, there’s always somewhere else our mind could wander.

The problem is that when we jump from task to task, we aren’t really getting more done. We’re forcing our brains to constantly switch gears, working harder to do things at a lower level of quality, and exhausting our mental reserves.

We multitask in a lot of ways, but regardless of the form, the costs are high. It’s unrealistic for most of us to eradicate the multitasking monster altogether, but with a better understanding of how it impacts our productivity (and which personality types are most vulnerable) we can mitigate the negative effects.

3 Types of Multitasking

Texting and driving is a multitasking situation that gets a lot of media attention, but this kind of double-duty attention split is just one way that we try to force our brains in multiple directions at once.

According to the American Psychological Association’s overview of multitasking research, there are three types of multitasking(1):

  1. Performing two tasks simultaneously. This includes talking on the phone while driving or answering email during a webinar.

  2. Switching from one task to another without completing the first task. We’ve all been right in the middle of focused work when an urgent task demands our attention; this is one of the most frustrating kinds of multitasking, and often the hardest to avoid.

  3. Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. It almost doesn’t seem like multitasking at all, but our minds need time to change gears in order to work efficiently.

To be clear, none of these is necessarily worse than the others; all three reduce our effectiveness and result in mental fatigue. Be on guard for all three types of multitasking so you can regain control of your focus.

The Myth of Multitasking Ability

It’s estimated that only 2% of the population is actually proficient at multitasking, and ironically, these people are the least likely to actually multitask. The problem is that we all think we’re part of that 2%, and use our perceived ability as justification to juggle too many tasks. In fact, recent research indicates that people who multitask the most often are likely the worst at it.(2)

David Sanbonmatsu, David Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward and Jason Watson of the University of Utah’s Department of Psychology dive deep into this problem in their study on multitasking:

“Perceptions of the ability to multi-task were found to be badly inflated; in fact, the majority of participants judged themselves to be above average in the ability to multi-task. These estimations had little grounding in reality as perceived multi-tasking ability was not significantly correlated with actual multi-tasking ability.”

Don’t assume that you’re part of the 2% can multitask, and focus on excelling at one task at a time.

Why Bother Single-Tasking?

Jumping from task to task doesn’t seem like it takes very long when we’re in the moment, but these tiny time-wasters add up quickly.

According to the American Psychological Association:

“[A]lthough switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.

Wouldn’t you like to get back 40 percent of your productive time? That’s 16 hours every week that we might be able to recover by eliminating multitasking. That kind of valuable time is surely worth muting your phone for!

The 4 Most Common Multitasking Personalities

To be fair, some of us have a harder time avoiding the multitasking menace than others. The University of Utah study referenced earlier identifies four types of people with a greater tendency to multitask:

  1. You’re approach-oriented or reward-focused. You consider the possible benefits to multitasking and are attracted to the higher potential rewards it represents.

  2. You’re a high-sensation seeker. You need constant stimulation, and enjoy the novelty of switching to new tasks.

  3. You’re convinced you’re part of the 2%. Those who think they’re good at multitasking are more likely to engage in the behavior more often than those who think they’re just average at it. But, as we saw, our perceptions of our own abilities are usually inaccurate.

  4. You have trouble focusing. If you’re prone to distraction or have trouble blocking out external stimuli, multitasking may be harder for you to shake.

If you fall into one of these categories, don’t despair. You can always improve your multitasking behavior — and even getting back 20% of the time you’re currently losing is a pretty big win.

Getting Started With Multitasking Management

The first thing to remember is that you won’t be able to eradicate multitasking completely — at least not right away. Your best bet is to try to confine it to certain parts of your day.

To start, create a space where multitasking is very difficult. These two strategies work in tandem to help you recover more productive hours from your day:

  1. Identify and Segment Complex Tasks

Figure out which of your regular tasks are most complicated, and create a distraction-free time and space for them. This goes for working on new things too.

According to the APA, the more complex or unfamiliar the tasks, the more time you’ll lose switching between them. Save yourself a whole lot of time (and brainpower) by getting into a laser-like mindset during your most complicated tasks and tackling one at a time.

  1. Manage Multitasking With Familiar Tasks

Which times and places does multitasking rears its ugly head for you most often? When you’re in those situations, focus on repetitive or familiar tasks. This helps minimize switching costs, while also letting you indulge a little in your natural multitasking tendencies.

Creating a space where multitasking is allowed is particularly important if you fall into one of the four personality types above. You’ll have the hardest time weeding out multitasking during times of focused effort, so allowing it at other times can help make that process easier.

How Much Time Will You Recover?

Identify the situations where multitasking costs you the most:

  • Are you focused on the potential accolades for “getting so much done”?

  • Does every ding from your computer draw your instant attention?

  • Are you worried about missing a breaking story on Twitter?

Whatever your trigger, identifying it will help you shut it down during your most complex tasks, so you can focus and get more done. Understanding the multitasking monster more fully means you can take steps to minimize its negative impact on your productivity.

How much time could you get back?

1. American Psychological Association: Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson JM (2013) Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402
2. Rubinstein, Joshua; Meyer, David, E.; and Evans, Jeffrey E. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4, 763-797.

About the author:
Andrea Fryrear is a content marketer for MarketerGizmo, where she dissects marketing buzzwords and fads, hoping to find the pearls of wisdom at their core. Her pet topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for businesses. She’s happy to connect on LinkedIn.