Musings on multitasking – at what point does multitasking become overloading?

Any marketer’s job description requires ‘a skilled multitasker’, somebody who is able to work on many projects at once, who can do many things at once. And, I’m sure I’m not alone in enjoying working in this way, it makes me feel efficient, it makes me feel capable and it makes me feel in control… most of the time!

As a marketing communications agency we’re busy, really busy, sometimes scarily busy. Yesterday I worked on about 25 different projects for as many clients in an eight hour day, and this isn’t unusual. I went from managing exhibition stand design to print adverts to HTML campaigns to brochure printing to copywriting all without missing a beat.

On days like this I often find myself talking on the phone, checking my emails and keeping one eye out on Twitter for some exciting titbit. This is expert multitasking, right?

Wrong, says a study by Stanford University. Back in 2009 they conducted an experiment which found that contrary to popular opinion people who completed multiple tasks in a variety of media simultaneously actually performed poorer than those who performed one task at a time.

These findings were supported by a study published earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which found that short term memory is actually hindered by juggling too many technological tasks at once.

The assumption was that when multitasking, we retain distracting information in our short term memory and so find it harder to focus on the project in front of us. Basically, we’ve stuffed our short term memory to the seams with information we neither need nor want at the moment.

I certainly find spreading myself over email, landline phone, mobile phone, Twitter and Facebook a discomforting way to work, not only that, a dissatisfying way to work. Just as the studies suggest, I feel full of information irrelevant to the task ahead of me and distracted by what I’ve seen or what I think I might see if I just check all my information portals more time.

So I have made a promise to myself, do one thing at a time.

Now, when I’m on the phone, I am mindfully on the phone listening to what the caller has to say. When I’m talking to a colleague, I don’t check my emails at the same time. When I’m watching television, I don’t keep one eye on my Twitter feed to see what everyone else is saying about the programme. I have found that by doing less multitasking not only can I get more done, but I can work on more different projects!

I started this blog post by saying multitasking makes me feel in control, and it does, but strangely, avoiding technological multitasking makes me feel more in control. In fact, I’ve discovered that by focusing fully on what I’m doing, I’m enjoying my work more.