How Multitasking Hurts Team Productivity And What You Can Do About It

Every manager wants a team that can work on three or four different tasks at the same time, don’t they? An effective worker should be able to pivot from their day-to-day tasks to respond to emails or requests from clients and management or jump on an urgent task as it comes up. After all, a team that can multitask will get twice as much work done in half the time, right?

Wrong. Multitasking has been shown to have several negative impacts on workers, both in the short term and over time.

The Problem with Multitasking

Studies have shown that splitting your attention between multiple tasks lowers your efficiency and severely hurts the quality of your work. In fact, one study from the University of London shows that workers who multitasked were effectively lowering their IQ as they worked and produced results similar to what might be expected of someone who had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. Participants in the study who were multitasking showed that their IQ scores dropped by 15 points, landing them around the average range of an 8-year-old.

Multitasking can also have some long-term impacts on workers’ quality of life, leading to undue stress and early burnout if it goes on too long. This, in turn, can lead to unsatisfied clients, poor performance reviews, and high worker turnover rates. Suddenly, “high efficiency” isn’t so efficient.

So then how can we boost productivity?

Cramming more tasks into less time is not the way to improve productivity, but it seems to be our natural instinct when we’re faced with huge tasks. So what alternatives can management present to encourage their employees to avoid this harmful practice?

1. Eliminate distractions

This does not just mean turning off the television or setting your browser to block social media while working. Notifications and instant messaging programs, even those that are tied to your work, can harm your team’s productivity.

Little interruptions can draw their attention away, derailing their workflow, which likely will take some time to restart. Even if it only takes a few seconds out of your day, those seconds add up quickly and diminish the quality of your work. Stick to a commonly agreed work schedule.

Turn off notifications and instant messaging programs. Instead, set a specific time when you will be checking and responding to emails and other messages.

2. Manage the workflow

In a similar vein, managers should manage the workflow of their workers carefully and know when and when not to send over extra work. When managers repeatedly send over urgent—or even not-so-urgent—tasks that will only take a few minutes, you make it more difficult for them to accomplish their regular tasks in a timely manner. Particularly when there is a deadline approaching, management should avoid adding low-priority tasks immediately as they arise.

3. Delegate properly

Keep an eye on your employees’ workloads and delegate according to both workload and specialization, using a case management approach. PNMsoft defines case management as “the methodology whereby knowledge workers handle unstructured work,” meaning managers should lay out specific processes for employees to follow to spread the work properly among workers and bring structure, efficiency, and measurable results to their workflow.

4. Take regular breaks

Studies from Florida State University have shown that top performers in several fields generally work best in uninterrupted, 90-minute chunks, taking breaks between sessions. “To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Professor K. Anders Ericsson, one of the researchers from the se studies said, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

While it may be tempting to encourage marathon work sessions, shorter bursts tend to yield better, more consistent results.

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