Task switching can have a detrimental impact on productivity, wellbeing and creativity, explains Lisa Blackett, Director, Potential in Me.
Digital advancements have brought many benefits for individuals and organisations. It is how we most often engage with work and people, whether in the office, home or hybrid. The norm of digital connectedness to the point of being ‘switched-on’ most of the day is typical, in one way or another.
There are also downsides to this connectedness and many organisations have normalised some behaviours that aren’t good for staff, productivity or performance.
This article will focus on just one aspect of a particular work phenomenon – multi-tasking or more accurately, task switching.
Multi-tasking has been associated with getting a lot done or managing several tasks, people, plates at the same time – something to be proud of!
Whilst this ability exists to some degree when we undertake a physical activity and a cognitive one at the same time, when more than one task relies on our brainpower, it turns out we aren’t as effective as we like to imagine.
Types of attention
It helps to start with our two key types of attention. We have executive attention – the attention required for cognitive tasks and focused work. Executive attention is also related to memory, problem solving, and achieving goals.
The other type of attention is alerting attention, which reacts to external stimuli. It is based on our ancient survival need of looking for rewards, such as food, and warning us of danger.
We control our executive attention whereas alerting attention is involuntary – we don’t control it!
Putting this into a work context, we use executive attention to write a report whilst alerting attention reacts to the email notifications.
That is a simple example of digital multi-tasking – it sounds like we can write the report with one part of the brain whilst another part keeps on eye on urgent communications, doesn’t it? But we can’t, at least not effectively.
The alerting attention wins, because it is survival-driven. That is why it is task switching rather than multi-tasking – for that moment, we are fully processing one or the other.
It is the same if you are reading emails whilst in an online meeting. You’ll miss something from the task you switched from.
Impact of task switching on productivity
Tasks requiring executive attention take a certain amount of time, concentration, and brain capacity to complete. Let’s call this ‘deep work’, a term described by Cal Newport (2016), in his book of the same title.
Below are two examples of employees who have a deep work task, one without task switching and one with.
- John has to complete a four-hour task (Task A). Without task switching, Task A should take four hours.
John doesn’t do disruptive tasks during this time, such as checking email, texts, or internal messaging, and all notifications are switched off. He does take breaks for the body and mind, such as getting up to move, looking out the window, having a meal, going for a walk, etc.
John finishes Task A in four hours plus the time healthy breaks, 30-60 minutes. He feels good about his output and can now check in with colleagues and clients, which takes around 30 minutes.
- Jack also has the four-hour Task A to complete but is task switching and it takes just over six hours, without any healthy breaks. He checks his email, Slack, and his phone is next to him with a few notifications on.
He feels tired and stressed afterwards and not completely comfortable about the quality of his output.
Jack’s two extra hours sound extreme, but they’re not. Research (Attention Span, Mark, G., 2023) shows that we lose up to 60% productivity when we multi-task. We also deplete our finite cognitive and attentional resources and energy, reducing creativity, decision-making and memory.
Read more about how to improve productivity
Impact on wellbeing
Turning to external stimuli that engage the brain (even if it’s not important), takes time, and not only the amount of time taken, but also additional time to get back into what you were doing.
We don’t even have to open the email or message for our attention to be diverted as we cannot not see the notification (Indistractable: Eyal, N., 2019).
Our brains are constantly filtering for salience and if there is a lot of frequent input, as this behaviour tends to lead to, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember what is important and what isn’t.
Additionally, the pressure from all these demands and notifications, when we have other work to do, creates a sense of urgency, causing stress, which also reduces our cognitive abilities.
Read about the workplace benefits of higher wellbeing
Impact on creativity
Part of the reason Jack doesn’t feel as great about his work as John is because he wasn’t being as creative as he could be.
Creativity demands ‘head’ space, and when our brain is overwhelmed (by constant stimuli), we are more ‘exploitative’, relying on what we know, and can easily grasp, versus being ‘explorative’, using divergent, out-of-the-box thinking (Baror, S. and Bar, M., 2016).
Decision-making likewise becomes less effective when task-switching, in part due to the decrease in prioritisation and salience and in part due to cognitive fatigue.
The table below highlights the impact of single tasking versus task switching.
Helps executive/cognitive functioning
Weakens executive/cognitive functioning
Keeps better and more complete memory
Makes remembering very difficult
Feel more calm and productive
Decreases productivity by 60%
Work is more accurate
More likely to make mistakes
Improves relationship (we are more considerate of those around us)
Can impact relationship (less focus on people)
Less unnecessary stress
Increases sense of urgency – stress – overwhelm
Brain becomes fatigued, weakens decision-making
If any of this resonates with you, take some time to reflect on your own, as well as your organisation’s, digital habits and ways of working. Once you become more aware of how you are working, you can begin to find ways to enhance it and lessen ways that diminish it.
Reducing the demand for task switching and allowing space for deep work as well as reflective time after tasks, projects and meetings is positive for any business.
Firstly, it is good for our wellbeing – how we feel mentally, emotionally, socially and physically – to work in a way that is beneficial rather than harmful. Secondly, creating a workplace that enhances staff wellbeing improves the organisation’s performance as well. Thirdly, working in ways that are more productive also improves outcomes.
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