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Is Multitasking Harmful? Maybe Not.

The recent bias against multitasking may be misguided. New studies suggest that polychronic top management teams facing more interruptions may actually outperform their single-tasking counterparts.
Why multitasking is not so bad for executive teams
infographic by Catalogtree

"Organizing From the Inside Out"

“Multitasking is dumbing us down and driving us crazy,” announced The Atlantic in 2007, stating that it “messes with the brain in several ways.”

Time-management expert Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out, has noted studies that show “it takes your brain four times longer to recognize and process each thing you’re working on when you switch back and forth among tasks. Think about it: If it takes you 10 minutes to get oriented to a new task every time you switch gears, and you switch gears 10 times a day, that’s over 1.5 hours of wasted time.”

But perhaps that time isn’t as wasted as it seems. The “bias against multitasking may be misguided,” wrote Vangelis Souitaris and B.M. Marcello Maestro in the Harvard Business Review last year. “In fact, executives who doggedly plow through each task until it’s finished may be doing their companies a disservice. Under some circumstances, top management teams perform better when they accept — even relish — interruptions.”

The authors studied executives at nearly 200 new technology ventures on the London Stock Exchange. “We measured top management teams’ polychronicity — their tendency to multitask — and… found that the financial performance of companies with highly polychronic teams was significantly better…”

Why? “The polychronic teams proved to be superior information brokers, absorbing and disseminating more-insightful information than their average and monochronic counterparts. As a result, they were much less apt than the other teams to bog down: They could make strategic decisions faster [which] boosted their companies’ performance.”

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THE PLUS

Film buffs: The Atlantic essay cited here was written by Walter Kirn, who wrote the novel on which the George Clooney movie Up In The Air (2009) is based.

His essay cites an experiment at UCLA, “where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds.” It wasn’t that the musical distraction diminished the subjects’ ability to sort the cards — the rub was that “they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.”

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