New Science Reveals the Myth of Multitasking

BY Dipal Parmar



The ability to multitask may seem like a prerequisite for being a successful attorney. However, many studies have found it to be a counterproductive habit that reduces efficiency while increasing stress levels. Instead, experts say focusing on one task at a time is likely to yield better results.

A day in the life of an attorney tends to be filled with mounting piles of work and endless tasks to squeeze into an already packed schedule. In order to catch up, lawyers are compelled to work faster, put in longer hours or do more things at once. As a result they often juggle many tasks simultaneously, whether it is talking to a client on the phone while drafting an email, or catching up on paperwork while following court proceedings.

Lawyers may think they are accomplishing a lot by multitasking. However, multitasking simply creates an illusion of productivity. There is a growing body of research that shows doing too many things at once actually hurts both efficiency and quality of work rather than improving productivity.

The Multitasking Misnomer
Multitasking is the act of spreading one’s attention over multiple activities simultaneously and trying to perform two or more tasks at the same time. For example, an attorney might check email while eating a quick lunch, marking the draft of a brief and listening to a muted conference call. While the practice is extremely common today, experts say in reality there is no such thing as multitasking. The habit can more accurately be described as “task switching,” which involves rapidly jumping back and forth between different activities rather than doing them simultaneously.

Although human beings possess task-switching abilities, studies show they are not wired to effectively accomplish multiple activities at the same time when both require conscious thought and are controlled by the same part of the brain. It is possible to perform higher-level tasks simultaneously with automatic behaviors, such as walking and talking, or listening to music while eating. On the other hand, if an individual is chatting with a coworker while drafting an email, one activity will inevitably suffer. This is because writing and speech-related tasks compete for attention from the same location in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

Negative Side Effects of Multitasking

Infographic from Fuze

The common assumption is that multitasking creates efficiency. However, research shows people who multitask have significantly poorer time management abilities than those who do not. A 2009 Stanford University study found that constantly shifting from one area of focus to another makes heavy multitaskers worse at both filtering out irrelevant information and using their working memory — two key abilities attorneys require.

Psychologists claim the brain is not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. In fact, mental “juggling” can be harmful. Neuroscientist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin discovered in his research that constantly switching tasks depletes the brain’s levels of glucose, which is required for effective thought and action. In response, the brain releases the stress hormone cortisol, which clouds thinking and leads to an endless cycle of higher stress levels and less productivity.


Quote from Professor of Informatics Gloria Mark, Graphic from Anders Pink

According to the American Psychological Association, performing more than one task at a time, especially multiple complex tasks, takes a toll on efficiency and results in more mistakes. The brain takes an average of 25 minutes per switch when transferring attention from one task to another. Moving back and forth between several activities means an individual wastes their attention on the act of switching gears rather than truly focusing on any single activity.

Read More on the APA's Research for Multitasking

Attorneys can benefit from replacing multitasking with a new approach to time management. By slowing down and making an effort to stay focused on one task at a time, lawyers are likely to increase productivity, make fewer mistakes and boost mental wellbeing. Here are some ways in which attorneys can avoid the multitasking trap and deal with all the demands on their time and attention:

Remove Distractions
In today’s screen-saturated world, people are constantly shifting between online and offline activities and dealing with an overload of information. Consequently, the art of single-tasking has become a challenging one to master. Attorneys find themselves juggling phones, laptops, iPads and other devices that demand their attention. With so many distractions at one’s fingertips, the ability to focus on and finish a project before moving on to the next has become increasingly elusive.

Eliminating distractions can help prevent interruptions that can waste valuable time and make it more difficult to get back into the flow of productivity. According to Gloria Mark, informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine, the average person’s attention switches every 45 seconds. Her research found that interruptions lead people to change not only their work rhythms but also strategies and mental states. She said, “Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task.” In addition, people compensate for interruptions by working faster, leading to more stress, frustration and effort.

Read More on The Cost of Interrupted Work (PDF)

Email is often a big culprit when it comes to multitasking. Many attorneys stop every few minutes throughout the day to check their email. Mark suggested limiting reading and replying to email to several 20-minute chunks of time throughout the day. Doing so can enhance efficiency by reducing the number of transitions between tasks and freeing up time for other work.

Additionally, blocking time in one’s schedule to focus on high-priority tasks can also be beneficial. The aim is to work uninterrupted during this period instead of succumbing to distractions from phone calls, emails or drop-ins. If necessary, turn off email alerts and other notifications, or switch the phone to silent mode.

Recognize Not Everything Is Urgent
In his pioneering 2009 study, Stanford professor Clifford Nass challenged the notion that people could multitask with digital devices, such as talking on the phone, browsing the internet and checking email. Nass and his research team found that individuals who are regularly assailed with several streams of electronic information have trouble paying attention, controlling memory or switching from one task to another in comparison to those who concentrate on a single activity.

Read More on Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers (PDF)

Attorneys tend to have many things vying for their attention simultaneously, several of which are likely to involve technology. For example, they may be juggling a ringing phone, a brief due the next day, an email notification, a client who wants to discuss their case right now and an associate seeking their opinion on a matter. It is important to realize not all of these situations are urgent. For example, the email, client and associate can wait until later.

Learning the difference between true emergencies and tasks that can be scheduled for later requires practice and planning. Rather than attempting to do everything all at once, start asking whether the many tasks that come up throughout the day really require immediate action. Decide which items are priorities and set specific times in which to complete them.

Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the opposite of multitasking; it means paying close attention to what one is presently doing. Being mindful involves focusing on both the act of performing a task and the quality of the task. The practice can help reduce stress and provide a greater sense of accomplishment. Becoming more mindful can be as simple as shutting down an email program when starting to prepare a brief, or writing down a to-do list rather than feeling overwhelmed about remembering to do everything.

Although a direct correlation between multitasking and the outcome of legal matters may not exist, there are several implications. Besides a lawyer’s productivity and wellbeing, multitasking can also have a negative impact on clients, who pay attorneys for their time and thinking ability. If a lawyer’s brain is not completely focused on the client because of constantly switching between tasks, they may unconsciously be giving clients less than what they pay for.

Attorneys can benefit from a fresh approach in which they replace multitasking with focus-oriented work habits. While the lure of multitasking is powerful, understanding its hidden costs may help people choose strategies that boost their efficiency and daily job satisfaction.

Dipal Parmar

Dipal Parmar is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and legal content developer for mid-sized to large law firms.


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