Switch, Shift, Repeat: The Cognitive Cost of Multitasking

How Frequent Task Switching Impacts Our Brains

How many of you are confident and proud that you can efficiently multitask? You handle multitasking with ease, or so you think. But the truth is that whenever you switch tasks, you spend some time re-familiarising yourself and getting back into the zone. This delay always affects your productivity, whether you realise it or not. As we will see, there is generally no such thing as multitasking; in reality, we are switching tasks and paying the productivity price, termed Cognitive Switching Penalty.

Disclosure. I use Generative AI tools to help me when writing. From outline suggestions to topics or subtleties, I had yet to think of.

Stressed individual in a modern office setting, surrounded by multiple computer screens displaying various tasks such as emails and reports. Papers are scattered across the desk, symbolising the overwhelming nature of multitasking in a hectic work environment and ensuing loss of productivity.
The Cognitive Cost of Multitasking Generated by DALL E 3

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The Myth of Multitasking

Do this regularly during the average working day, and this time lost begins to add up. Say, for example, you’re busy writing a document, and then you have to jump into a support call. Within minutes, a colleague rolls up with a ‘small question’. Before you realise it, you’ve lost ten minutes answering the support call, another ten helping your colleague, and finally, it takes you ten minutes more to get your mindset back into the document.

If this happens twice daily, up to an hour is taken up with minor and low-priority work. That’s 12.5% of your working day. No wonder your productivity suffers, and this is an optimistic estimate. In the next section, we’ll highlight several studies and articles which detail the detrimental impact on productivity.

This week’s article will explore these issues, techniques to alleviate the effects, and the practicalities of applying these techniques, which depend heavily on specific work situations.

Understanding Cognitive Switching Penalty

Here are several links exploring the concept of cognitive switching penalty, mainly focusing on the associated productivity loss. For each link, I’ve included a short synopsis:

  1. Psychology Today: The True Cost of Multi-Tasking
    Highlights a potential loss of up to 40% of productivity caused by task switching, often mislabeled as multitasking. The study also shows that switching between tasks can result in more errors and may take longer than focusing on one task at a time. The more complex the task, the greater this penalty. Though each switch might seem minor, the cumulative effect over a day can be substantial.
  2. Able.ac: Switch Cost Effect and The Independent: University of Michigan Study
    According to psychologist David Meyer, shifting between tasks can cost up to 40% of productive time. This effect is not just about the time lost but also reduces the quality of work, affects memory retention, impedes the state of flow, and leads to decision fatigue. It is noted that every time a person switches tasks, they lose over 20 minutes of concentration, a significant amount considering the average number of times people change focus in a day.
    Another myth is that younger people can switch tasks more easily and efficiently than older people. However, researchers at the University of Michigan also conducted experiments involving young adults who switched between various tasks. They identified significant time costs associated with task switching, especially complex tasks. Though small individually, these costs add up significantly for those who frequently switch tasks, concluding that multitasking inhibits overall efficiency.
  3. Stanford University: Heavy multitaskers have reduced memory
    A decade-long study led by Stanford psychology Professor Anthony Wagner reveals that heavy media multitaskers, who frequently engage with multiple media types simultaneously, demonstrate reduced memory performance. The research, co-authored with neuroscientist Melina Uncapher, used various methods to assess memory and attention, finding a significant underperformance in heavy multitaskers in tasks related to working memory and sustained attention. Wagner emphasises the need for caution in drawing definitive conclusions about cause and effect but suggests being mindful of the potential impact of heavy media multitasking on cognitive functions. This study focussed specifically on media multitasking, but the effects can be seen to be general in nature.

These studies underscore the significant impact of cognitive switching on productivity, highlighting the time lost and quality compromised due to frequent task switching. However, switching tasks isn’t always negative; for example, when we are stuck with some difficult problem and take a break to do something else, we give our subconscious time to help solve the issue.

Need a Eureka Moment? Take a Hike!

The Personal Cost of Constant Switching

Frequent task switching may not only affect productivity but can also have a mental and emotional toll by leading to increased stress, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Over time, the habit of constant task switching may also be linked to the erosion of the ability to concentrate on single tasks for extended periods.

Mark, Gudith, and Klocke’s Study found that interrupted work can be done faster but at a potential cost to mental health. After just 20 minutes of interrupted work, participants reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.

Why multitasking does more harm than good: explains that multitasking is less efficient than focusing on one task at a time. It interferes with various brain networks, leading to slower processing and more mistakes. Multitasking may impact both working and long-term memory. In contrast, multitasking might seem beneficial in certain contexts, like walking while thinking, to enhance creativity; in most cases, it reduces task performance and can even be dangerous, like texting while driving.

These imply a negative impact of frequent task switching on mental well-being, including increased stress, reduced focus, and memory problems. However, nothing is proven beyond all doubt, but from our own experiences, we can tell that the conclusions ring true. In my opinion, it is best to keep an open mind.

How to Minimise the Penalty

I’ve learned through painful experiences to try my best to concentrate on a single task at any time. Self-discipline and time-blocking seem to be the most effective for my situation.

For the first 30 minutes of the day, I’ll review my inbox and assign the various items to a specific time in my calendar. Next, I’ll review the day’s priorities and make sure they are assigned to an appropriate time block. Only then do I start with the highest priority task and concentrate on it until it is completed or the time block is exhausted. This is the plan every day, but of course, reality plays a role, and things can change very quickly.

The method seems obvious, but as we all know, it is too easy to get sucked into a situation where, even though you’ve been busy for the entire day. Not one single task has been completed. This is where situation demanding, of course, self-discipline takes a significant role.

In more general terms, use your head and don’t let yourself get pressured into days where nothing is really done. This will only lead to a stressful day and often to a sleepless night. Use the 80/20 rule to concentrate on the tasks that matter the most. Handle your emails and other administrative items in batches. Use a time block to allow yourself to fully focus on the most challenging tasks, one at a time. We all have a calendar, so use it to micro-manage each day.

And when we have to be interrupted, leave your current task in a state where you can more quickly pick up the workflow when you have the time to get back to it. If you plan an hour or so daily for ‘other tasks’, you allow yourself a cushion, blank spaces, to handle the unforeseen while still having sufficient time to complete your most important work.

Recognise and accept that multitasking does not work. How our brains are wired, we do our best work when we can focus on one thing at a time.

Final Thoughts

The most important takeaway from this week’s article is the potential (likely?) negative effect of attempting to multitask. This myth may only result in a potentially significant reduction in your productivity. This feeling of underachieving then impacts your stress levels, increases fatigue, and murders your motivation.

Timer out from work must be exactly as the label describes: time out. Your downtime is just as important as your work time. If you reach the end of a week exhausted, and it takes you all weekend to recover, only to begin the cycle again the following week, you cannot possibly be expected to perform at your best.

So, look after yourselves. Using the simple tools available and being disciplined with your planning can only benefit you and your work. Otherwise, what’s the point?

KodifyIT B.V. is an advisory bureau targeting businesses that have either been on the receiving end of a failed project or are aware of the potential pitfalls and wish to mitigate as much risk as possible while developing a project’s client requirements. We aim to side-step any issues before they cost time and money.

I apologise to my readers for some of the spellings you may feel are incorrect. I was born and brought up in the United Kingdom, and this is the spelling I am comfortable with (Grammarly is happy with it anyway).


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