The 3 Costs of Multitasking

April 7, 2014 BY danariely

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Are you a task switcher? This is the quintessential rhetorical question, because we all switch between tasks, and we do so often.

While the answer to this question is predictable, clear and almost universal — a more complex and important question is how much time do you think you lose when you engage in task switching?  Like many of our daily challenges, here too there are three different factors to consider.

1. The first factor to consider is the direct time that we spend on our secondary task.  For example, imagine that you’re busy working on some complex description of a problem, and you hit a particularly challenging point.  You are stuck in a slight mental block, unable to make any real progress for a few minutes. So you think to yourself, “Let me take a quick five minute break and use this time to catch up on email.” Twenty minutes later, you are still responding to email, feeling that familiar unjustified satisfaction we all feel when we managed to clear some of that email backlog in our inbox.  Ten minutes later, you are finally back to working on your complex task, and if you bothered to look at your clock, you would realize that the last thirty minutes were a direct cost of the switch.

2. The second factor to consider is the delayed cost of switching, which is the cost of switching once we are back to our main task.  Now, you probably think that the delayed cost of switching is negative.  That switching actually helps you.  That once you get back to your main task, you are hyper-energized and ready to really get down to business.  This belief in “switching helps” is the reason that many people switch so often. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case.  Most likely, once you are back, for the next ten minutes or so, your engagement with your complex task is only partial, and you are not yet fully back into it.  The reality is that even when you are back working on your main task — for a while longer — you keep on paying a low-productivity-price for your task switching.

So, how do we overcome this problem?  How do we make sure that when we think we want to take a five minutes break, that this is really what we want to do, and that it is only for five minutes?  To achieve such increased discipline, we either need more discipline ourselves (which is very hard to do), or we need some better productivity tools that will help us with such increased accountability and discipline.

p.s.  in full disclosure, I should point out that I checked email multiple times while writing this, which is most likely the reason that I did not get to the 3rd factor of time wasted.  Maybe next time.

p.p.s.  And in even more full disclosure, I should point out that we have recently co-founded a company to address such challenges.