The Cost of Multitasking: How Much Productivity Is Lost Through Task Switching?

Oftentimes, multitasking has the effect of making people think they’re accomplishing more. The truth is that multitasking and task switching can have detrimental effects on productivity

When we jump from task to task, we aren't really getting more done. In actuality, we're forcing our brains to constantly switch gears, working harder to do things at a lower level of quality and exhausting our mental reserves.

We multitask in many ways, but regardless of the form, the cost of context switching and task switching is high. It's unrealistic for most of us to eradicate the multitasking and task switching monsters altogether. But with a better understanding of how it impacts our productivity (and which personality types are most vulnerable), we can reduce context switching productivity loss.

The myth of multitasking

It's estimated that only 2% of the population is actually proficient at multitasking. Ironically, these people are the least likely to actually multitask. The problem is that we all think we're part of that 2% and use our perceived ability as justification for juggling too many tasks. In fact, research indicates that people who multitask the most are likely the worst at it. 

David Sanbonmatsu, David Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward and Jason Watson of the University of Utah's Department of Psychology dove deep into this problem in their study on multitasking:

"Perceptions of the ability to multitask were found to be badly inflated; in fact, the majority of participants judged themselves to be above average in the ability to multitask. These estimations had little grounding in reality as perceived multitasking ability was not significantly correlated with actual multitasking ability."

Simply put, don't assume that you’re part of the 2% who can multitask successfully.

3 types of multitasking

Texting while driving is a multitasking situation that gets a lot of media attention. This kind of double-duty attention split is just one of the ways that we try to force our brains in multiple directions at once. 

There are three types of multitasking:

  1. Performing two tasks simultaneously. This includes talking on the phone while driving or answering emails during a webinar.
  2. Switching from one task to another without completing the first task. We've all been right in the middle of focused work when an urgent task demands our attention; this is one of the most frustrating kinds of multitasking, and often the hardest to avoid.
  3. Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. It almost doesn't seem like multitasking at all, but our minds need time to change gears to work efficiently.

To be clear, none of these is necessarily worse than the others. All three reduce our effectiveness and can result in mental fatigue. Be on guard for all three types of multitasking so you can regain control of your focus.

The Cost of Multitasking How Much Productivity Is Lost Through Task Switching? 2
(Source: Power Digital Marketing via Unsplash)

What is context switching?

Context switching is when you simultaneously engage yourself in two complex activities. It can also happen when you're distracted by someone else or when you interrupt your own work to focus on the other task. 

It is unlikely for most of us to achieve deep focus while continually switching back and forth from one type of task to another type. To perform a challenging task optimally, you need to reach a state of flow, where you give your complete attention to one activity. Studies have shown that it takes around 15 minutes of uninterrupted work on the task to reach this state. 

This is why context switching can keep you from being truly efficient. It reduces concentration and lowers the quality of your overall work by stopping you from reaching an optimal state of focus.  

What is the cost of context switching?

Most people juggle multiple projects on a day-to-day basis. This is because multitasking is considered a valuable skill. But the more tasks you tackle at once, the more context switching productivity loss can become an issue.

It can take more than 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted. That's because distractions actively break down your ability to focus. Naturally, you can't do your best work when your mind is scattered across 10 apps, 12 ongoing conversations, and a to-do list that's a mile long. 

While the direct cost of context switching might feel small, the overall effect on your focus can be overwhelming.

Is there a difference between context and task switching?

In its purest form, task switching is when you shift your attention from one task to another and is prompted by interruptions in your workflow. Meanwhile, context switching is when you jump between various, unrelated tasks. 

Both context and task switching sidetrack your productivity by demanding unnecessary mental flexing. It is essential to avoid them both, eliminate distractions, and focus on a single task at a time.

 The 4 most common multitasking personalities

To be fair, some of us have a harder time avoiding the multitasking menace than others. The University of Utah study referenced earlier identifies four types of people with a greater tendency to multitask:

  1. You're approach-oriented or reward-focused. You consider the possible benefits to multitasking and are attracted to the higher potential rewards it represents.
  2. You're a high-sensation seeker. You need constant stimulation and enjoy the novelty of switching to new tasks.
  3. You're convinced you’re part of the 2%. Those who think they're good at multitasking are more likely to engage in the behavior more often than those who believe they are just average at it. But our perceptions of our own abilities are usually inaccurate.
  4. You have trouble focusing. If you're prone to distraction or have difficulty blocking out external stimuli, multitasking may be harder for you to shake.

How can you avoid task switching in project management?

Put simply, task switching overloads your brain and kills productivity by up to 80%. It shifts your attention to different and unrelated tasks. If multitasking is an inescapable part of your day, try these tips to minimize the cost of context switching

Identify and segment complex tasks

Figure out which of your regular tasks are most complicated. Accommodate these complex tasks by creating a distraction-free time and space for them. This goes for working on new things, too. 

Save yourself a whole lot of time (and brainpower) by getting into a laser-like mindset during your most complicated tasks and tackling one at a time.

Plan similar tasks together

The problem with task switching is that you pay substantial productivity costs for little to no gain. When there is an instant change in the context of your tasks, it has a terrible effect on your attention span. A solution to this is to cluster tasks. This technique involves grouping related and similar tasks. This cuts down on context switching and swinging back and forth between wildly different tasks. 

One task approach

The constant switching of gears affects your focus and efficiency. Choose a single task to work on, dedicate all of your attention to it, and make that the only thing you plan to accomplish in a particular time frame.

It’s also beneficial to make a to-do list that includes every one of your tasks. This enables you to organize and prioritize your work. 

Put an end to unproductive task switching with Wrike

A project management solution like Wrike makes it possible for teams to plan, organize, delegate tasks, and follow up on them. A distraction-free digital workspace ensures that teams are able to communicate and complete tasks with ease. 

Furthermore, an online project management platform allows team members to effortlessly share documents, schedules, and other relevant information without needing to search through emails or various other platforms (goodbye, task switching!). 

Whether you are working on personal or organizational tasks, one way to get more done in less time is to recognize that multitasking can lead to productivity losses. Better task management starts with Wrike. Get started with a free two-week trial!

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