Are You a Multitasker? Here’s How it’s Hurting Your Productivity

By Vicky Cassidy of Grid Productive, post one in a guest blog series about increasing your productivity at work I used to wear my multitasking skills as a badge of pride. Look how much stuff I got done! How many items I crossed off the list! How quickly I responded to my customer’s emails while simultaneously testing out software bugs!

I was fooling myself thinking that I was being productive. Sure, lots of the little crap got off my plate, but what did I actually accomplish? If I didn’t put my full attention into anything, how good were my results?

For decades, “multitasking” was a term used to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, not humans. In the early 1990s, multitasking started appearing in the “skills” sections of résumés.



In the moment, multitasking makes you feel more emotionally satisfied with your work.

You feel like you get more tasks accomplished. You feel productive. You’re excited.

But as I’m sure people who rely on multitasking as their norm know all too well, that feeling doesn’t last, and both the short-term costs and the long-term consequences are brutal.

SHORT TERM COSTS OF MULTITASKING According to Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr in The Power of Full Engagement, a person who multitasks has divided attention, is less fully engaged with people, and produces a lower quality of work. There have been quite a few scientific studies done on the quality of work of multitaskers, and the results are unanimous:

“It’s unequivocally the case that workers who are doing multiple things at one time are doing them poorly.”

What’s more, another study found that people who are constantly distracted by phone calls, e-mails, and text messages actually suffer a short term loss of IQ that is greater than a person smoking marijuana. It concluded that not only do constant interruptions reduce people’s productivity, it also “leaves people feeling tired and lethargic.” Does that mental and physical exhaustion sound familiar?

LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES OF MULTITASKING When talking about long term consequences, Schwartz and Loehr found that multitasking led to shallowness of connection to others and less capacity for absorbed attention.

Other researchers have found that multitasking “contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory.”

So what does that mean from a business perspective?

In a 2007 New York Times article, researchers estimated that interruptions in the workplace cost the US economy somewhere around $650 billion a year.

Culturally, it means we have more information but less wisdom, because we don’t take the time to focus and form new ideas or deeper connections.

NOW THAT YOU’RE READY TO STOP MULTITASKING While the facts paint a clear picture, actually making the change from multitasker to focuser takes some practice. Leo Babuata of Zen Habits wrote a great post on what he does when he finds himself “task switching”:

He first asks himself “what am I working on?” Is it a million little things or something of substance? Next, he lets go of the idea that he’s going to get everything done, and focuses on what he can realistically get done that day. He then clears everything except the task in front of him. By doing this, focus is possible.

He says, “letting go of all the little urges to be up-to-date, to be in-the-know, to do everything, to say yes to everything” is a process. Start the process.


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