Hey, stupid. Yeah, that's right, I'm talking to you. You might think that your e-mail, BlackBerry, smart phone, always-on Web connection, and ever-growing array of computer applications make you smarter and more efficient. But you're wrong. Instead, all those shiny new tools make it impossible to concentrate on any one thing for more than a few minutes. And that is why you have become dumber and less effective.
Or so suggests a stream of recent studies. Researchers at the University of California, for example, studied a group of professionals and found that participants made it only an average of 11 minutes before some distraction yanked them off the task, after which it took 25 minutes to get back on it. Physician and attention deficit disorder expert Edward Hallowell, in his recent book CrazyBusy, compares multitasking to playing tennis with two balls, and says that constantly jumping between tasks not only leads to subpar performance, it also gives workers some of the symptoms of ADD. A psychologist at London's King's College suggests that constant exposure to e-mail and other multitasking-friendly technology temporarily lowers IQ by 10 points--or about as much as skipping a night's sleep and more than twice as much as smoking marijuana. And Basex Research, an IT market-research firm, surveyed office workers to figure the business bottom line to the growing distraction disaster. The answer: Companies lose an average of 2.1 hours per day of employee productivity because of multitasking and related interruptions, adding up to $588 billion in lost productivity to U.S. businesses.
These conclusions would explain a steady drop in the productivity of U.S. workers. The problem: Worker productivity, as measured by the government, not only has been on the rise since the early '90s, when all this technology started to come into play, but also has accelerated during the explosion of the multitasking phenomenon over the past five years.
So what gives? Does multitasking really impair our ability to get our jobs done? The answer for most workers is, I think, no. But it's not because multitasking doesn't impair your ability to perform tasks. It does. It's because we're now in a complex, fast-response world in which getting a complete task done in the least amount of time is no longer the priority. Instead, today's top priority is to immediately address whatever fraction of a vast, malleable range of tasks has become most critical--a just-in-time, networked workstyle. Focusing on one task to the exclusion of others isn't even an option anymore. When experts examine the detrimental effects of multitasking on productivity, they're asking the wrong question. We don't need to wonder about the ways in which multitasking and interruption impair our ability to speed through a task. We need to appreciate the ways in which multitasking and interruption have become essential to meeting the increasingly nonlinear demands of our jobs.
That means it's essential not only to put up with but also to embrace multitasking. Fifteen years ago, it was almost impossible to get a fast response in midevening, or even midday, from your head of product development or the CEO of a key supplier. But today, with projects and products being zipped around the globe, chances are you know exactly how to get someone's attention at a moment's notice. And the ability to do so has a direct impact on the bottom line, says Michael McCloskey, CEO of FrontRange Solutions, a customer relationship management software and services provider in Dublin, California. "If I'm in a price negotiation with a big customer, and they've got their legal and purchasing people right there, and they want an answer to a question, I better be able to get that answer," he says. "Because I may not be able to get those people in the same room talking about my product again anytime soon." McCloskey admits that he often has to interrupt people during important tasks to do so. But he has no second thoughts. "Ninety percent of the time," he says, "it's worth it."
Meanwhile, businesses have long been moving away from the sort of stovepipe structure that allowed employees to focus on meeting the demands of a single boss or worry only about a small group of employees or customers. Today the dotted-line relationships form a dense web that extends out to customers, suppliers, and partners. In other words, forget about closing the door and crunching on that one presentation. You've got 20 other people breathing at you just as hard, and each one wants to know that you're making progress. "The way we look at getting the job done is changing," says Martin Frid-Nielsen, CEO of Soonr, a Campbell, California, company offering a service that connects cell phones to PC applications. "It's about how in touch you are and how you're engaging many other people."
That's one reason corporate IT professionals typically take on an average of 12 projects simultaneously, even though doing so increases the time involved in finishing all of them compared with doing them one at a time. Throw in the fact that business priorities and goals constantly change in our world of shortening product cycles, ever more fickle markets, and rapid innovation, and it just seems almost, well, dumb to suggest that employees ought to be executing tasks one at a time from beginning to end while putting all the other tasks on hold for days or weeks.
Studies about the impact of multitasking and interruptions tend to ignore these factors. But though the studies may not be able to gauge the effect of multitasking in a relevant way, you've got two terrific measuring devices that allow you to do so in your own company: your gut and your balance sheet. If your people seem to you to be smart, hard-working, and effective amid all the interruptions, then they probably are--and they'll naturally gravitate toward the tools that help them get the job done, interruptions and all. And if businesses are making good money and growing as multitasking takes hold, then what problem are we trying to solve? Michael Santo, founder and CEO of human resources consulting firm RembrandtAdvantage in Palm Springs, California, notes that a worker in the insurance industry contributed on average about $85,000 of revenue to his or her company in 1991; today it's $250,000. That's not in spite of having developed the technology-enabled habit of jumping back and forth between dozens of open cases during the day, he says. It's because of it.
Yes, multitasking can be stressful, but that's a poor way to gauge its value. The fact is, in today's business environment not being able to multitask would probably be highly stressful. Just imagine how you'd feel locked in a room focusing on a single task without computer, phone, or e-mail access, trying not to think about how many customers and colleagues were trying to reach you with urgent questions.
And by the way, not only is it possible to play tennis with two balls, many players make a point of training that way--as do some soccer, basketball, and baseball players. It's a good way to improve reactions, to learn to cover more ground with less effort, and to develop a faster-paced game. Sound familiar?
Contributing editor David H. Freedman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Boston-based author of several books about business and technology.