Tangled Up in Tasks

Multitasking and frequent interruptions are inescapable aspects of office life, but they can exact a toll.


The estimate is startling. Naturally, upon reading it, I have to leave my office and tell a colleague about it.

According to Basex Inc., a knowledge-management research firm, work interruptions cost the U.S. economy at least $650 billion a year. Analysts Jonathan B. Spira and David M. Goldes reckon that 28 percent of the typical knowledge worker's day, or 2.1 hours, is consumed by unnecessary interruptions and recovery time. Their calculations are based on surveys and interviews conducted over the past three years.

Surely, skepticism is appropriate regarding such a staggering sum (amounting to 5 percent of the gross domestic product). Still, there is justified concern over what researchers call "work fragmentation," associated with interruptions and multitasking. The technologies that connect us and enable us to do our jobs — E-mail and instant messaging, cell phones and PDAs — can also diminish our productivity, as recent research demonstrates.

For example, in a 2005 study, researchers at the University of California at Irvine found that information workers at an outsourcing company spent an average of 11 minutes on a project or task before they were interrupted. Once diverted, it took them 25 minutes to return to the original task. Spira and Goldes cite a British researcher who administered IQ tests to different groups of people; the group that was distracted by E-mail and ringing telephones scored an average of 10 points less than a control group (and 6 points less than a group in another study that smoked marijuana before taking the test).

Some observers suggest that multitasking and interruptions can almost drive us, well, nuts. Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., a well-known expert on attention deficit disorder (ADD), says he increasingly sees people who exhibit symptoms of what he calls ADT, or "attention deficit trait." Chronically overbusy and disorganized, "they have what I call a severe case of modern life," says Hallowell, a child and adult psychiatrist in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

An Inverted U

Of course, multitasking can be a boon as well as a bane. According to a 2006 study by researchers at MIT, it can lead to higher productivity. Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson, and Marshall Van Alstyne studied workers at an executive-recruiting firm, reviewing data on more than 1,300 projects over a five-year period and monitoring more than 125,000 E-mail messages for 10 months. They found that workers' revenues were "a function not only of how fast they work, but also of how much they multitask." Heavier multitaskers were able to complete more projects than others, even though their speed per project may have been slower.

But the MIT researchers also found that the relationship between multitasking and productivity is shaped like an inverted U. More multitasking means more output only up to a point, "after which there are diminishing marginal returns, then negative returns to increased multitasking." They noted that previous research has shown that multitasking is associated with "cognitive switching costs," which means that as tasks pile up, efficiency drops and errors multiply.

Another 2006 study, by researchers at UCLA, suggests that multitasking can lead to less-than-optimal learning. Participants in the study were scanned with functional MRI while they learned simple classification tasks. First, they learned the tasks without distractions; then, they were required to count electronic beeps while learning the tasks. Although the participants performed equally well in both circumstances, the fMRI scans showed they used different parts of the brain while doing so. Undistracted, they used the part associated with flexible learning (the hippocampus). When they multitasked, they used the part associated with habit learning (the striatum).

"These results have implications for learning in multitask situations, suggesting that, even if distraction does not decrease the overall level of learning, it can result in the acquisition of knowledge that can be applied less flexibly in new situations," concluded Karin Foerde, Barbara J. Knowlton, and Russell A. Poldrack.

A World Gone ADD

Edward Hallowell says that multitasking can be desirable, adding variety to the job. But he believes the kind of multitasking in which attention shifts rapidly from spreadsheet to E-mail to Web page to BlackBerry can be damaging. Hallowell's most recent book, CrazyBusy (Ballantine Books, 2006), offers "strategies for coping in a world gone ADD." Fortunately for those with short attention spans, the book can be read in two or three undistracted evenings.

The increasing pace of work and private life has marked almost everyone with symptoms of untreated ADD, asserts Hallowell. They may, he writes, "have many projects going simultaneously but chronically postpone completing them, make decisions impulsively because their brain's circuitry is overloaded, feel they could do a lot more if they could just get it together…and in general feel busy beyond belief but not all that productive."

Sound familiar? Maybe not. Still, most people probably feel, at minimum, that there aren't enough hours in a day to do everything they have to do, and most people probably think that the situation is only getting worse. Hallowell's book offers plenty of practical advice for improving this situation, much of which will be familiar to students of time management.

For those too busy to read the book, here's what Hallowell told CFO about how to calm down and regain focus. One, take control over your life, while accepting that total control isn't feasible or desirable. Two, prioritize: decide which tasks matter the most. Three, rebuild the boundaries that technology has broken down. "Close your door and turn off the cell phone," he says. "Decide that your day does have an end point, that there are places where you can't be disturbed."

How does one take back control from the boss, or set up boundaries to keep him or her away? What if, like many finance staffers, your door is always open and you have to be "on call" for most of the day?

"Then," replies Hallowell, "you have to have 'The Conversation.' You have to speak with your superior, or your client, and say: 'I'm loyal, I'll do anything you want. Having established that, how can we get the best out of me for you? Let's look at how you're using my brainpower. When I'm available at your beck and call, when you interrupt me, there is a price to be paid. I can't just instantly go back to what I was doing. I want you to know that you are losing a certain amount of productivity and efficiency from me by allowing yourself the luxury of interrupting me whenever you want.'"

This is not an insubordinate conversation, he insists. But what if you simply can't have that conversation with your manager? "You ought to get another job," replies Hallowell. "It means the situation is untenable."

In the end, getting organized, setting boundaries, and learning time-management skills aren't enough, says Hallowell. Emotions are important, too, and people underestimate the role they play in peak performance. "Just as you can be thin and miserable, you can be very well organized and still feel overwhelmed by modern life," he writes. Get plenty of sleep, eat well, and make sure you have some positive human contact during each day, he recommends.

"You're not a machine," says Hallowell. "Managing your brain is right at the heart of what success and failure hinge on." And happy brains, he observes, "think better."

Edward Teach is articles editor of CFO.


comments powered byDisqus

Read next:

Becoming a Value Integrator: A CFO Journey