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Multi-Tasking Decreases Productivity

Beware all you multi-taskers, you may not be as productive as you thought. According to new research compiled by David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, productivity is actually hindered when people try to accomplish two things (or more) at once. Mr. Meyer reports that people who switch back and forth between tasks, like working on a project and answering the phone or e-mails, may spend up to 50% more time on those tasks than if they work on them separately, completing one before starting the other.

There has been little research into the habit of multi-tasking but Mr. Meyer theorizes that some workers may feel more productive or it provides a show of accomplishment for co-workers. Increasingly, however, researchers are questioning whether the constant flow of data is part of the problem.

“It's magnetic,” said Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard. “It's like a tar baby: the more you touch it, the more you have to.”

Dr. Hallowell and John Ratey, an associate professor at Harvard, join a growing number of physicians who are concerned about the effects of technology on creativity, thinking processes and productivity. Increasingly, they have observed workers who are compulsively drawn to the constant stimulation provided by incoming data. They have coined their own term for the apparent addiction that some have for the constant flow of data and jumping from one task to another: pseudo-attention deficit disorder. Its sufferers are influenced by the fast pace of modern life and the constant use of technology to the point that they have developed shorter attention spans. They become frustrated with long term projects or activities that require intense concentration.

“It's like a dopamine squirt to be connected,” said Dr. Ratey, who describes a narcotic-like effect of being constantly wired. “It's an addiction,” he said, “Some people cannot deal with down time or quiet moments.”

The data speed demons worry they will fall behind if they disconnect and are compulsively drawn to fast moving data. Duped O.C.D.--online compulsive disorder, by researchers studying the syndrome, there are actual symptoms of withdrawal for folks when they unplug and seek quieter moments. Some clues that you may have a problem:

  • It is difficult to unplug. Whether at a conference, on vacation, or simply after hours at home, you become anxious if you haven't checked your e-mail, voice messages and fax after a few hours. If you go get a cup of coffee and feel that you have to check the e-mail when you return, you are over plugged.
  • Your desk is cluttered with multiple unfinished projects. Multi-tasking can be a way to avoid projects that are stalled or difficult to finish. Seat belt yourself to the chair and focus on finishing the largest undertaking first. Turn off the phone/fax/internet so that you can concentrate.
  • Data becomes difficult to separate from information.We are bombarded with data these days, but is it really information? Any worthwhile information or news will be reported in multiple places. Arrange for the delivery of information from one or two sources and tune out the rest.
  • Creativity and new ideas are stalled. It is well known that many of the best ideas and creative thinking occurs when the mind is uncluttered. That is why people often report that if they “sleep on it” they wake up with the answer to a problem. Make sure that you are building quiet, uncomplicated time into each day for creative thinking.
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