Quality or quantity – the multitasking myth (Part 1)


We’ve all heard that staying competitive means finding ways of doing things faster, cheaper and with fewer resources. Easy to say, but not so easy to accomplish!

Enter multitasking, a term which originated in the computer engineering industry and refers to the ability of a microprocessor to process multiple tasks concurrently. In the world of humans, we’ve reinterpreted this term as “juggling as many tasks as possible, in the shortest time possible”. And to help us with that (and speed things up even more), we’ve become reliant on computers, smart phones and tablets.

The truth is that multitasking is only possible when two conditions are met. The first condition is when at least one of the tasks is automatic – meaning no focus or thought is necessary to engage in the task. Walking and eating are good examples of automatic tasks. The second condition is the tasks involve different types of brain processing. What we’ve been calling multitasking is actually task-switching or serial tasking, shifting from one task to another in rapid succession. Some experts now estimate that rather than gaining efficiency, switching between tasks can cause as much as a 40% loss in productivity.

An article published by three Stanford University researchers suggests that people who consider themselves great multitaskers are in fact the worst multitaskers! They make more mistakes, remember fewer items, and take longer to complete a variety of focusing tasks than those who rated themselves as infrequent multitaskers.


Research funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” The psychologist who led the study called this new info-mania a serious threat to workplace productivity.

But it gets worse! Just a few of the many problems linked to multitasking are:

Though questions still exist and data continues to be collected, most of the evidence seems to suggest that multitasking won’t solve our productivity challenges in the least and in fact may make our days more difficult to manage.

But it’s not all bad news – in part 2 of this blog, I’ll focus on strategies for greater productivity and alternatives to multitasking.

About the author

Mark Pundzius has over 15 years’ experience in career counseling, specializing in assisting workers with career management, advancement, and transition challenges. His previous incarnations as an Administrative Clerk, On-Board Service Rail Agent, Retail Manager, Antique Restorer, and Bed & Breakfast Owner/Operator have broadened his perspective on labour market realities and circuitous career paths. A graduate of the Career & Work Counsellor program at George Brown College (Toronto, Ontario), he is passionate about the changing world of work. Mark is currently the Supervisor of the Career Counselling Services team at Shepell·fgi.

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