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Multitasking in IT: Sought-after skill or burnout bedlam?

In a world of information overload, many of us have turned multitasking into a way of life (I have done so with the help of RedBull). But are our efforts actually making us more efficient?

The desk of a multitasker

Earlier this week I spoke to the CIO and vice president of New Hanover Healthcare Network, Avery Cloud, about integrating project and portfolio management and IT service management to provide a better view of the resources, projects and service requests within IT. Cloud said that without a single view into what his staff members were working on, some employees were being stretched too thin across multiple tasks — without his knowledge.

According to Cloud, when his employees had multiple assignments on their plates, they spent more time moving around from task to task, “firefighting urgent requests,” than focusing on one core assignment. The constant interruption slowed momentum, increased stress levels and decreased productivity, Cloud said. This left many projects unfinished, with no slowdown in the number of projects coming in.

A new Stanford Research study found that heavy multitaskers had a more difficult time distinguishing relevant information as compared to those who multitasked at a lower level. “When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Anthony Wagner, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford.

The study showed that heavy multitaskers were more easily distracted, had worse memories and found it more difficult to stay on task. “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” said Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead author and researcher in Stanford’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

Cloud said that having a better handle on resource allocation and reducing the need for multitasking, not only made committing to the right projects at the right time easier, but also had positive personal effects on his staff. “It increases employee morale and it ensures we keep our best employees,” he said.

And there you have it — another example of doing more with less.

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I remember seeing a TV show of a study at a university, were they had an office setup on a stage - and they gave a list of task to a student to complete in this office - but there was a time limit, they had to get all 40 items done in a set time, filing, copies made, logging in doing task .... What they found was the males went in order of the list, and never finished all the task in time -- while the females multitasked, did the task in varies orders and a large percentage finished all the task. Does the above study show the gender difference? Also the stress levels of having to multi-task had a gender difference.
It's entirely possible Corinthia is seeing an effect unrelated to the multi-tasking. I"m a male but joke that "man-hours" sometimes fail to match "woman-hours." Multi-tasking's diminution of productivity is fairly widely recognized, except by those who are immersed in it and having to work twice as hard to get things done. While I believe Elihu Goldratt and the Theory of Constraints folks tend to overstate their case, they do have some valuable examples of how working on just one task at a time results in more tasks being completed sooner.
Corinthia -- Interesting. I came across a similar study on [A href=""]gender and multitasking[/A]. Robin -- Thanks for the added insight! Goldratt's [A href=""]Theory of Constraints[/A] is worth a look. :)
I totally concur with the previous posts, that there is a gender difference. The information that I have read seems to speak to my male gender. Thomas Davenport and John Beck point out a couple of studies in their book, "The Attention Economy". Using terms like "Multitasking Mirage", "increased risk of multitasking", "we will have to come to grips with our multitasking limits" My personal experience is that my ability to multitask increases as the task to perform require less thought such as walking and chewing gum.