Is multi-tasking making us stupid?

You lose 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions.

Let me respond to email while sending a tweet as I’m on the phone drinking my coffee. Sound familiar? When was the last time you did only one thing at a time? If you laugh at the notion, perhaps you need to pay attention because all this multi-tasking and e-mailing might be making you stupid and costing you time, money, and peace of mind.

Recently Entrepreneur Magazine ran the article Email is Making You Stupid and it re-ignited in me my passion for single-tasking. The article takes a research based approach to the notion that should be obvious…when you do more than one thing at once you are less effective at it.

The average information worker — basically anyone at a desk — loses 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions, according to Basex, an IT research and consulting firm.

Every time you get distracted it takes time to re-orient back to the original task at hand. If you figure that your tweets are streaming nonstop, IM’s are getting fired at you at an alarming rate, and email piles up faster than our landfills, you can theoretically always be in the midst of an interruption if you allow yourself to be.

Unfortunately the reality of the situation is the opposite of what is perceived. The Entrepreneur article this sums it up well:

The cult of multitasking would have us believe that compulsive message-checking is the behavior of an always-on, hyper-productive worker. But it’s not. It’s the sign of a distracted employee who misguidedly believes he can do multiple tasks at one time. Science disagrees. People may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, but they can’t do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously.

Trying to do both forces his brain to switch back and forth between tasks, which results in a “switching cost,” forcing him to slow down. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that productivity dropped as much as 40 percent when subjects tried to do two or more things at once.

Therein lies the myth. In order to be more productive you need to disconnect, but when you disconnect people (aka the powers that be at work or your clients) tend to think that you are being less productive and less available to them. When in fact, by compartmentalizing your thoughts and tasks you can actually be more available to others because when you’re with them you are fully present and not also on the Blackberry, laptop, phone, etc.

Like Aaron in his article Myth of Multi-tasking, I first learned about this myth by studying about programming and the processors on PC’s. He shares that he learned from the book “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning”:

And that’s essentially what multi-tasking is; switching focus from task to task at a quick rate. So, is multi-tasking good? Well, if we could switch from task to task seamlessly without losing memory, then multi-tasking might be productive and good. But unfortunately our brains don’t work that way.

Multi-tasking is sort of like telecommuting, people get stuck in all or nothing thinking. That either you’re working or you’re not. Either you’re connected all the time with a mobile device in each appendage or you’re slacking off. It doesn’t have to be, you just have to be savvier to manage your attention and tame the interruptions. If you doubt this is a problem, consider the fact that the Information Overload Research Group is an organization dedicated exclusively to reducing information pollution and includes members from organizations like Microsoft and Intel.

In Email Interruptions: Threat or Opportunity? Marsha Egan gets into the math of just how much time is wasted with email interruptions. Her solution bridges that all or nothing gap offering a practical solution that anyone except perhaps an email based helpdesk could implement.

In order to instantly combat this loss, give everyone in your organization “permission” to turn off auto-receive, and instead schedule email deliveries every 90 to 120 minutes. So, instead of 30 interruptions, you now have 4 or 5 a day.

Miss Searles shares about her commitment to try uni-tasking as a means to turn down the noise in her head (the voice of overwhelm). There is nothing like a constant stream of information to ratchet up feelings of overwhelm. I know I personally get entirely off-kilter if I succumb to the temptation to keep checking social media sites and email.

While certainly not a strategy for day to day productivity, BlogHer‘s Lisa Stone recently shared how two weeks without email was the best gift she ever gave herself. Sometimes you just need a total and complete information detox.

Perhaps Dee Armstrong Crabtree sums up the feeling we get from multi-tasking better than anyone: “I have been multi-tasking like crazy and bordering on feeling crazy. Today I finally got a grip. I decided to focus on just one thing at a time.”

So whether you do it in the name of productivity, safety (remember that texting while driving thing?), or to save your well-being and sanity, remember that multi-tasking may seem like a fine idea, but even the most powerful computers can’t do two things at once. What are you going to do to take back control of your time and attention?