Why Multitasking is an Employee Productivity Killer

November 11, 2016 Ioana Marinescu

Imagine you are currently working on filling one particular job posting. Your mind wanders and you are tempted to check the number of applicants you got for another job posting. Should you resist the temptation? Research suggests that, as a general rule, you most definitely should! Multitasking kills productivity. 

Want to finish projects faster? Do them one at a time.
So suppose that finishing Project A takes one week if you concentrate on it, and Project B also takes one week. If you do Project A first and then Project B, you will finish Project A after one week, and Project B after two weeks, with an average project completion time of one and a half weeks. Now suppose you work back and forth from Project A to B every couple of hours. Then, both projects will be finished after two weeks. Multitasking delays Project A for a whole week with no benefit to project B.

In case you think this is just theoretical, my fellow economists Decio Coviello, Andrea Ichino et Nicola Persico explored the impact of multitasking on the ability of judges to close cases in a reasonable time frame. They found that when judges were assigned additional cases to handle, all cases got delayed. This shows that, when you have more projects and you multitask, the time to completion for all of your projects suffers.
Multitasking impairs your ability to remember information.
When you switch from one task to the other, it is hard to keep in mind information about both tasks. For example, researchers asked students to do a small amount of web research while following a lecture. They found that students who did web research got lower scores on a questionnaire about the contents of the lecture.

What this means for you — and your hiring process

Multitasking not only delays project completion but also lowers the quality of the finished product. When a job candidate brags about multitasking, you should think twice about hiring them: Remember that multitasking is actually less productive. While it is not always possible to avoid multitasking, limiting task juggling will increase employees’ productivity and help them get things done faster. Have conversations with your candidates to find out what they actually mean when they say they’re a pro multitasker — and get the information you need to make more informed decisions about whether he or she has the focus to complete tasks well and in a timely manner.


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