The Truth About Bad Multitasking

gombadmin Blog

By Kristen Cox, GOMB Executive Director

The GOMB operational excellence team talks a great deal about the problems associated with bad multitasking. We claim that simply minimizing interruptions and creating environments where people don’t have to constantly switch from one task to another can significantly improve both individual and system performance—regardless of the system or work environment. Can it really be that simple?

In his book, “The 12 Week Year,” author Brian P. Moran points to three interesting studies confirming that bad multitasking erodes productivity. Here are the facts:

  • According to Dave I. Meyer, Director of the Brain Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, when you mentally push back a primary task to pick up a new task, you increase the time needed to complete the primary task by 25 percent and increase the chance of making mistakes.
  • A time use study published by Basex, a business IT research firm, concluded that 28 percent of the average professional’s time in a day was spent on interruptions and associated recovery time. That is about eleven distracted hours out of a 40 hour week.
  • A study conducted by Microsoft and the University of Illinois found that after being distracted from serious mental tasks by things like e-mails or instant messages, the typical Microsoft worker took an average of fifteen minutes to get back on task.

Sometimes we look for complicated and sophisticated solutions for improving productivity. The truth is that some very simple changes in the way we organize our work and how we protect people’s time can make a big difference. Beating down the bad multitasking culture is a relentless task since we sometimes seem to thrive off of it and are often organized in ways that perpetuate bad multitasking. Here are three things you can do today to begin to address bad multitasking in your life.

Make Uninterrupted Time a Priority

Schedule blocks of time each week so you have uninterrupted “focus” time. This may seem impossible or may even be considered a luxury but doing so is fundamental to your ability to improve your own productivity and performance.


Sometimes we perpetuate bad multitasking because we switch our focus between high priority tasks and those which are of lesser importance. Be clear on how you spend your most valuable resource—your time. Managing your time requires that you eliminate or reduce the number of items or tasks that currently take up your time. Focusing your time means identifying those items that shouldn’t be taking up your time along with identifying those things you aren’t spending your time on and should be.

Practice the Golden Rule

Respect the time of others and reduce the interruptions that you may be causing. If you manage people, find ways to organize their work flow or schedule protected time so that they too can benefit from focused and uninterrupted time. Sometimes we managers are the worst culprits of pushing bad multitasking out to our employees. Allow them to have protected time and then respect it. Encourage feedback about the processes or policies that block them from having the focused time they need to be successful.