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Digital Friction and the Myth of Multitasking
Digital Friction

Digital Friction and the Myth of Multitasking

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5 minutes read time
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Published on May 24th, 2023
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Written by Rob Ryan

The Myth of multitasking (or, it’s a YOU problem)

Multitasking is often praised as a helpful strategy for managing multiple tasks at once, yet research indicates that we might not be as skilled in handling numerous activities simultaneously as we initially thought. In fact, studies have shown that multitasking can negatively affect workplace productivity, lowering comprehension, decreasing attention, killing productivity, and reducing overall performance. But the myth continues to be spread.

For example, you may be reading from a screen. Right now your eyes are paying attention to the exact words written with the voice in your head. You may have given some focus to tactile touch; but most likely not until you just read the last sentence. Perhaps you have taken account of the smells around you - but you have not been paying attention the pixels on the screen, or the gentle slope of this font. This information is ignored at present because they are not providing you with any value at this time. If you turn your attention towards the sounds around you, what do you now hear? The din of an AC or radiator, the click of a clock, children in the background? This is a fun exercise to understand we are antennas within the world, but with high filters.

How often has this happened to you: it’s a weekly conference call; you give undivided attention to the speaker; perhaps the call continues and you get distracted into replying to an email; when you go back and listen back to the call again - most likely you have lost track of the conversation.

We live within a world of expectation, desire, and complexity; we place ‘horse blinders’ on ourselves to be able to function properly - and that’s GOOD. After all, if you were to be mindful on all the inputs coming into your being at this very moment, you’d be quickly overwhelmed.

Fables and Myths

There is a paradox which persists within many organizations. That is, digital friction is considered a ‘people problem’. Many organizations understand digital friction is a challenge. Yet, mitigation of friction is placed back on employees to manage via their executive functions. It’s a YOU problem. The assumption that friction is part of the natural order of the digital workplace. It should be solved by ‘multi-tasking’ - or ‘better time management’.

Truth be told, the human brain was never designed to simultaneously process multiple high cognitive tasks at the same time. Sure, we can mow a lawn, listen to a podcast, and chew bubblegum - all at the same time. However, we could easily call into question the quality of the listening, paths of proper mowing, and mastication. Research indicates that potentially only 2.5% of the population can properly multitask, for the rest of us though - not so much.

Multitasking is a fairy tale, told to job candidates and added to requisitions. This ‘lie’ has led people to believe it is an actual skill; properly developed if you simply possessed the right amount of discipline. But, when was the last time you searched for a document, conversed over slack, wrote a email - all at the same time?

What Multitasking Is… and its Impact

When an employee attempts to multitask what they are essentially doing is switching back and forth between different activities - quickly. This rapid context switching can be cognitively taxing, leading to stress, decreased focus. For the employee, this pattern can make it more difficult to perform individual tasks to the best of one's ability, it also leads to increased errors and mistakes.

Impact: Less Focus, More Mistakes

When we try to preform multiple tasks at the same time, our attention is fractured; this leads to an increase in mistakes and subpar performance on individual tasks. In addition, when we become overwhelmed with many different tasks in which we context switch back and forth, it leads to reduced motivation, increased stress, frustration which only furthers to hinder workplace productivity.

Impact: Lost time and Money

One study, conducted by psychologists Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans (“Multitasking: Switching costs”), found that multitasking reduces productivity and impairs cognitive performance. They found that individuals who multitasked took longer to complete tasks and made more errors over those who focused on one task at a time.

In short, multitasking is inefficient. It takes time for the brain to switch between tasks - even micro tasks. This leads to delays decreasing productivity. It takes time for individuals to refocus and get back into a state of flow..

When multiplied across days, weeks, and entire headcount - this leads to a high levels of decreased productivity. All in spite of the belief that multitasking allows a person to get more done in less time. However, this belief persists, even promoted on resume key-words; but it is not supported by scientific evidence. The research suggests that multitasking can have a negative impact on cognitive performance and productivity. As we intuitively know, it is generally better to focus on one task at a time in order to maximize efficiency and performance.

Impact: Relationship erosion

What is less discussed is the potential impact of multitasking on our relationships. When we multitask, with others, or on a conference call - we are not fully present in our interactions. This is telegraphed in our behavior. It can lead to misunderstandings and reduced interpersonal connections. After all, how do you feel when we know someone isn’t full present with us when we are trying to collaborate?

Impact: Stress and Anxiety

From a vitality perspective chronic context switching harms our health. The switching can lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety, and eventually burnout. These symptoms can manifest physically as headaches, fatigue, or worse. Research has also shown long periods of rapid context switching can impair our memory. When we try to do multiple tasks at the same time, we are less likely to retain information from each event, leading to a reduction in retention.

Impact: Decreased Attention Span

Moreover, a growing body of research has demonstrated that the pervasive habit of continuously oscillating between screens, information, and resources has contributed to a decline in the average attention span among workers. Frequent digital multitasking has been linked to heightened distractibility, particularly among young adults who have been immersed in technology since childhood (Moisala M, Salmela V, Hietajärvi L, et al.). This persistent toggling between tasks can diminish one's capacity to concentrate, ultimately resulting in a reduced general attention span. As employees become accustomed to constant switching, they may preemptively interrupt themselves, anticipating distractions based on their typical work patterns. The proliferation of attention deficit disorder medications, books on focus, and research on attention underscores the increasing distractibility pervasive in both professional and leisure contexts.

Furthermore, a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University ("Why multitasking does more harm than good") revealed that individuals who frequently multitask performed poorly on tests measuring cognitive control, including the ability to transition between tasks and filter out irrelevant information. The researchers also discovered that heavy multitaskers struggled to concentrate on crucial information and were more susceptible to distractions.

What IS Needed…

All of us would love to be more productive - that’s a no brainer. If we are a student, we’d love to be able to study at length with greater focus/recall. As knowledge workers, we’d love to be able to stay in greater states of flow, without incessant workplace distractions. Yet, digital friction is ever present.

What we require is understanding and true leadership at the enterprise level willing to rewrite a future for the employee experience. This requires new thinking around digital workplace design; putting the employee at it’s center.

To rewrite any future properly it takes the mindset to understand that ‘multi-tasking does not exist’ and it can not remain as a reason to ignore mounting digital friction. “Working smarter” is ultimately operating with as little friction as possible, delivering time back to the individual and the organization.

This article was originally posted on Substack and has been modified for our website.

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