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Multi-tasking is not always a good thing

So many times I see multi-tasking listed among job requirements. Generation Y — roughly those born after 1980 — prides itself on its ability to multi-task. How many times have you driven down the highway talking on the phone or even worse, texting?

This has always bothered me. I tend to want to multi-task all the time too, and yes, I have sent text messages while driving. I am not particularly proud of this, but in those moments, it seemed that it saved me time and made me more efficient. However, lately I have noticed that the more I multi-task, the less fulfilled and more stressed I feel.

There have been many research studies on this subject. The classic example was done by Rubinstein, Evans and Meyer in 2001. They did an empirical study comparing how long it took to solve various types of problems when participants switched from one task to another. They then compared this to the time that elapsed when participants stayed on one task until completion.

They found that multi-tasking was just not as efficient as doing one job until completion, the reason being that each time they moved from task to task, they had to catch up to where they left off. Interruptions and multi-tasking have a similar effect in that before you can resume the task, your mind has to return to where you left off, and this takes time.

Additionally, the study found that people who multi-task could lose 40 percent of their time. Although less time was lost when people multi-tasked between familiar things like driving and talking on the phone, the time escalated when they had to multi-task between complex problems.

I tried an experiment, and for one day, I did not allow myself to multi-task no matter how much I wanted to take that call or check my e-mails while I was driving. Later in the day, I pulled over and responded to my phone calls and then my e-mails.

At the beginning of the day, I felt very frustrated as I thought I was falling behind. However, as the day went on, I started to feel less stress, and a sense of peace just seemed to envelop me. On top of this, I was able to accomplish all I needed, and it even seemed as if I was able to get more done than I would have while multi-tasking.

This little experiment has confirmed for me that multi-tasking has a high cost both in terms of stress and productivity. From now on, I am going to minimize how much multi-tasking that I do. I know now that, for me, it is not efficient and it makes me feel like “crap.”

Now go out and try a day without multi-tasking. See how you feel and how much you have accomplished. If this one day is successful, then try to apply it more often. While clearly some degree of multi-tasking is always going to be necessary, the more you reduce it, the better and more productive your life will become.

Jerry Osteryoung, the director of outreach of the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship in the College of Business at Florida State University and the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship and professor of finance, can be reached at (850) 644-3372.

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