Multitasking Malaise

Information overload is causing us to be stressed out and less efficient and creative. That’s the focus of the McKinsey Quarterly article Recovering from information overload.”  The article points to a significant body of scientific evidence that demonstrates multitasking makes human beings less productive, less creative, and less able to make good decisions.

Here are some of the highlights of this excellent article. (Register as a member for free at to read the entire story.)

Multitasking makes you less efficient: We tend to believe that by doing several things at the same time we can better handle the information rushing toward us and get more done.  However, when we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: in a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence.

Multitasking makes you less creative: When people have highly fragmented days—with many activities, meetings, and discussions in groups—their creative thinking decreases significantly.  Creative problem solving typically requires us to hold several thoughts at once “in memory,” so we can sense connections we hadn’t seen previously and forge new ideas. When we bounce around quickly from thought to thought, we’re less likely to make those crucial connections.

Multitasking causes stress: Researchers have found that subjects asked to multitask in laboratory settings show higher levels of stress hormones. A survey of managers conducted by Reuters revealed that two-thirds of respondents believed that information overload had lessened job satisfaction and damaged their personal relationships. One-third even thought it had damaged their health

Multitasking is addictive: Feeling connected through email, texting and social media sites provides something like a “dopamine squirt”—the neural effects follow the same pathways used by addictive drugs.This effect is familiar too: who hasn’t struggled against the urge to check the smart phone when it vibrates, even when we’re in the middle of doing something else?

What can we do to counter the effects of information overload and the tendency to multitask? Experts recommend finding time to focus, filtering out the unimportant and forgetting about work every now and then.  establish a set of norms in your business that support a more productive way of working Yoga and exercise are mentioned as great ways to clear your head. “Some of my best ideas literally come from standing on my head,” said one CEO.

Here are a few last words of wisdom from McKinsey that I hope we all take to heart:

 “No one would argue that burning up all of a company’s resources is a good strategy for long-term success, and that is equally true of its leaders and their mental resources…Multitasking is not heroic; it’s counterproductive.”