The lousy multitasker

Real Carpio So

Real Carpio So

“The core of the problem is that they think they are great at what they do; and they’ve convinced everybody else that they’re good at it, too.”

(Prof. Clifford Nass, Stanford University)

The changes in todays’ business environment have made work and tasks increasingly complex. Competitive pressures have constantly compelled organizations to “do more with less.” Organizations value employees that can handle multiple tasks at the same time. Talent selection has also moved towards the preference of candidates with multi-tasking skills. Employees are expected to engage in a variety of tasks, activities, and roles that they must handle simultaneously.

With multiple tasks at hand, employees differ in how these are achieved. Some prefer dealing with tasks all at the same time, while other might choose to focus on one task before becoming involved with another.

When confronted with multiple streams of information, a person’s ability to focus is naturally impaired. The ability to recall information, or to switch seamlessly from one task to another is also affected. By switching attention between and among tasks, productivity is wasted. The human brain exhibits a “response selection bottleneck” as it decides which information or activity to prioritize. Skimming becomes the default resulting in things not studied in depth.

Research conducted at Stanford University in 2009 revealed multi-tasking as less productive than doing a single thing at a time. Before the tests, participants who are multitaskers considered their preference for doing things as an advantage. After they were subjected to a series of tests, results showed that the performance of multitaskers were worse than those who prefer to do a single task at a time. Multitaskers exhibit difficulty organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information. They were also slower at switching from one task to another. One of the professors was quoted, “Multitaskers were just lousy at everything.”

IBM conducted a survey among 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries. This was in 2010. The CEOs identified creativity as the most crucial factor for future success. In organizations, new problems often require novel solutions. Restructuring or demolition of conventions is imperative. Employees exhibiting creativity contributes to organizational motivation, effectiveness and survival.

In “Time is Money: Polychronicity as a Predictor of Performance Across All Job Levels,” researchers failed to find a relationship between multi-tasking and innovativeness or creativity. Two years after, a journal article in 2014 published by the American Psychological Association echoed this conclusion. Apparently, as single-taskers only concentrate and focus on one task at a time, they have sufficient opportunity available to think creatively. In contrast, the attention of multitaskers shifts from one task to another. They allocate less time to each single task, depriving themselves of the opportunity to think creatively.

In 2005, the University of London found that multi-tasking lowers a person’s IQ. Conducted by its Institute of Psychiatry, the study documented the decline of IQ scores of participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks. The declines are similar to what is expected when one stayed up all night or smoked marijuana.

The drop in the scores placed them at the average IQ range of an 8-year-old.

Ah! We know a lot of them.

Real Carpio So lectures on strategic and human resource management at the Management and Organization Department of Ramon del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He welcomes comments at The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.


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  1. Jumping from one conclusion of a study to another without telling us the underlying assumptions is misleading to say the least. We could be led into believing that this is true regardless of the size of the firm.

  2. Jumping from one conclusion of a study to another without telling us the underlying assumptions is misleading to say the least. We could be led into believing that this is true regardless of the size of the form.