An MIT neuroscientist explains why so many of us in IT are deluding ourselves when we say we're good at multitasking
Anyone who has worked in IT has experienced information overload. With constantly chiming alerts and support tickets popping up as if your workstation is a game of whack-a-mole, it’s almost impossible to avoid.
To tackle it all efficiently, most turn to multitasking, the go-to reaction for employees who feel overwhelmed. After all, why shouldn’t you try to get as many things done at once as you possibly can?
As it turns out, scientific studies have provided a sobering answer to this question: You probably can’t get more than one thing done at once, and your attempts to do so may actually be making you less efficient and effective. In today’s IT environments, delays and mistakes can carry a high cost to the business. And if multitasking only increases these problems, then what we think of as a life hack may be more of a life hazard.
Exposing the Multitasking Myth
When you think of the ultimate multitasker, you’re probably picturing someone much like yourself — multiple monitors alight, web browsers with countless tabs, amidst a bustling, open-plan office space, smartphone in hand. Or maybe you envision the career-oriented parent side of your life, packing lunches and answering emails before rushing out the door with the family in tow, fast to school and work.
Such seemingly high-achieving people can seem efficient, ambitious, even aspirational to the rest of us. Not so fast. The research paints a somewhat different picture of what really happens when people juggle more than one thing at once.
Those who believe the most strongly that they benefit from multitasking are statistically likely to be worse at it. “What’s going on there is that it’s a self-delusion. The people who multitask a lot do so because they can’t resist the urge to multitask. They do it, then they rationalize it. One thing the brain is really good at is deluding itself.”
In one study, monotaskers (those who focus on one task at a time) performed 56% better than multitaskers on a series of test questions and reported feeling 25% less tired while doing so. Another study had 200 participants use a realistic driving simulator. All but 97.5% of participants performed significantly worse when required to complete a secondary auditory task at the same time.
No one can deny that it takes skill and effort to balance a busy life. Still, ambitious multitasker or not, our brains all have limits to how much they can juggle. As MIT researchers have recently established, it’s simply how the human brain works.
A Case of Evolutionary Inadequacy
Professor Earl K. Miller is a neuroscientist and head of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences. In an interview with Moogsoft, he explained why multitasking doesn’t (and can’t) give people the positive results they’re looking for.
“When we think we’re multitasking, we’re not actually doing two tasks at once. What we’re doing is switching back and forth between the tasks very rapidly,” says Miller.
This process of switching back and forth between tasks — though not consciously noticeable to the multitasker — comes with what Miller refers to as “switch costs.”
Every time you switch between tasks, your brain has to reconfigure itself to a new “network” and backtrack to figure out where it left off. As Miller explains, “It makes you inefficient, because you’re spending a lot of valuable brain computing time switching back and forth between tasks instead of really using the time to think.”
In the context of IT, these switch costs can cause problems. An operator working on multiple support tickets at once, for example, may find themselves losing track of their progress and mixing up their tasks, which could easily lead to errors.
Miller’s research points to the limits of multitasking as an issue of physiological structure rather than personal skill, emphasizing that individuals each have a limited cognitive bandwidth for taking in and processing information. “The part of the brain that’s most engaged when we try to focus on one task, or the part that fails when we can’t resist the urge to multitask, is an area called the prefrontal cortex,” says Miller. But the prefrontal cortex evolved in a much simpler era, where there was relatively little to pay attention to at any given time. “As a result, now we have a brain that’s in an environment it wasn’t evolved to be in,” he says, “where there are too many sources of information to pay attention to at once.”
Why You Keep Trying to Multitask — and What to Do Instead
So do you really have to give up on multitasking? What about people in your office who insist they’re actually good at it?
According to Miller, multitasking is simply not beneficial. Period. In fact, those who believe the most strongly that they benefit from multitasking are statistically likely to be worse at it. “What’s going on there is that it’s a self-delusion. The people who multitask a lot do so because they can’t resist the urge to multitask. They do it, then they rationalize it,” he says. “One thing the brain is really good at is deluding itself.”
While it is true that some people are better (and worse) at multitasking than others, relatively speaking, the bottom line is clear:
- If you think you’re particularly good at multitasking, the opposite is probably true.
- No one is better at multitasking than they are at monotasking.
A good workplace is, therefore, one that facilitates monotasking as much as possible. “Our brains can’t ignore that informational tap on the shoulder, that craving for new information,” advises Miller. “You have to use your executive brain to plan the monotask [and] get rid of distractions.”
In IT, this means organizing, streamlining, and prioritizing tasks wherever possible. Technology solutions that automate the sorting of what is a never-ending stream of incoming alerts and tickets can be immensely helpful in this regard, as shorter task lists are, of course, simpler for humans to prioritize and accomplish.
As a busy IT professional, you’re already striving to be an expert at optimizing solutions for your customers both outside and inside the business. By ditching the multitasking trap, you can optimize the most effective solution of all: the bandwidth of your brain.
About the author
Matthew Harper is VP of Corporate Marketing at Moogsoft. Previously, Matt held senior leadership roles at Glassdoor, Sony (PlayStation), and EQ Magazine.