How Multitasking at Work Can Slow You Down

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At any given time, are you trying to juggle lots of projects at work? If so, you could be decreasing your output, recent research suggests.

Researchers Decio Coviello, Andrea Ichino and Nicola Persico studied a group of Italian judges who were randomly assigned cases and who had similar workloads, in terms of the quantity and type of cases they were assigned. The researchers’ findings? The judges who worked on fewer cases at a time tended to complete more cases per quarter and took less time, on average, to complete a case. (You can read more about the authors’ findings in their recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin: The Impact of Task Juggling on Workers’ Speed of Job Completion.”)

That doesn’t mean all multitasking at work is ineffiicient. In earlier research into information-worker productivity in an executive recruiting company, Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne found that the level of multitasking matters. Their findings in that study suggested that, for the recruiters, working on more projects in one time period at first increased productivity, as measured by revenue generation. But as the level of multitasking increased, the marginal benefits of additional multitasking declined — and, at a certain point, taking on still more tasks made workers less productive rather than more so.

Aral, Brynjolfsson and Van Alstyne essentially suggested that excessive multitasking may result in the workflow equivalent of a traffic jam, where projects get backed up behind other projects much the way cars get stuck in traffic when there are too many on a highway at once. (You can read a brief summary of their findings in “What Makes Information Workers Productive,” an article from the Winter 2008 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.)


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Comments (15)
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Depends of you, i felt more confortable one task a time....
Dave Crenshaw
stop multitasking and focus to one task at a time to improve your productivity...
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Harshul Pandit
Multitasking - I would rather define it as , "conditinal" where the limit can be identify and set using set of psychological questions. If anybody knows about threshold energy curve then you may able to learn and extrapolate better. Upto certain level, multitasking increases productivity in terms of quality and efficiency, BUT the moment you cross the threshold limit, it eventually turn up to become detrimental for your subordinates and projects. This 'threshold limit' is circumstancial.
Andrew McFarland
From DWT (driving while texting) to walking while chewing gum we have proved that multi-tasking is the domain of those in the throes of max denial and supreme hubris.

I posted on this topic (with links to  interesting driving stats) earlier this year:  The Secret to Accomplishing More
This seems to be a problem that is getting worse instead of better with modern technology. We are able to open dozens of browser windows and work on dozens of projects at a time, the problem is the rate at which we get them completed begins to slow down and the quality seems to suffer as well. We have initiated a policy here that allows our employees to focus on only one project at a time and the results have been amazing...we should have done it years ago
Not all people are alike. Some are good in multi-tasking some are simply not born with it. I disagree that it slows you down. It could result however to a sub par quality of the work as compared to its counterpart.
Aina Adebambo
Multitasking should not viewed singularly; it is a function of capability. Every worker is capable of multitasking effectively. This goes on until he gets to his "carrying capacity"; above which decline sets in. What is most important, for me, is identifying each employee's "carrying capacity" as we encourage him to multitask.
Sheri Hendricks
Interesting article and it backs up what others are discovering as well.  The oft maligned practice of having focus seems to be making a strong comeback.
John Mindiola III
Multitasking can make a worker more successful. Unitasking can make the work more successful.
Miguel Moreno Rico
as an information worker I have experienced the advantages of not having very strictly defined roles, however I also have experienced as an employee and manager the disadvantages of excessive multitasking. very interesting article.