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Dr. Sanjay Gupta on deceptions in multitasking

CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta  

CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes a look at a study that indicates multitasking -- one worker performing several jobs at once -- can reduce productivity, not increase it.

Q: Tell us exactly what multitasking is. We all have many tasks at work, but is multitasking the act of juggling many jobs from start to finish, as opposed to starting and completing one job before moving onto the next?

GUPTA: Multitasking is the art of being able to switch back and forth from one job or task to another repeatedly. This often involves goal switching and re-evaluating, which experts say takes time.

Q: There is a new study that says multitasking is, generally, counterproductive. Tell us about this study. With whom and how was it performed?

GUPTA: The study evaluated the ability to multitask and the associated efficiency or inefficiency. Specifically, the subjects were asked to juggle two separate tasks and then to complete them independently. The [study] found that multitasking takes time, sometimes fractions of a second longer, which over time adds up. The authors also noted that as the tasks became increasingly complex, the time required to switch back and forth was even longer.

Q: What are the results of the study and do they ring true to you?

GUPTA: Good question. Despite the fact that our society has become more technologically savvy and devices have been created to try and make multitasking more seamless, we are working longer and harder than ever. Some of that is certainly due to the increasing complexity of our society, but some of that may have to do with the inefficiencies of multitasking.

Q: I am coming up with these questions while I am working on two other tasks. Today, you are juggling four tasks, it seems. In fact, don't many jobs these days require a person to be ready to drop everything for a higher-priority task?

GUPTA: Multitasking has become a way of life, especially for those on the perceived ladder of success. While it may have the appearance of getting numerous things done at once, the tasks may not be completed as effectively or quickly as desired, according to this study.

Q: In what kind of scenarios is multitasking potentially disastrous?

GUPTA: Certainly, people always give the example of driving while talking on a cell phone. This is classic multitasking and potentially dangerous. In this situation the few seconds required to switch tasks could allow an unsupervised automobile to swerve out of control.

Q: You were asked on air if males and females engage in multitasking differently. Do they?

GUPTA: That is the perception. While definitive studies are hard to find, experts believe women multitask better than men. There could be an evolutionary reason for this. While ancient men were responsible primarily for hunting and gathering, women had to tend to the children, the house and all the other activities of daily living. Over the years, women may have retained this ability, translating into an improved ability to multitask.

Q: How do bosses interpret these results? Should they hire more people? Should they revamp their work regimens? What if they can't?

GUPTA: I certainly can't make sweeping generalizations about all bosses. I will say that the term multitasking has become synonymous with success in humans. Even if the end product may be one of less efficiency and effectiveness, the perception is that multitasking is a desirable quality seen in ambitious employees.

Q: Haven't unions long been preaching what this study is saying?

GUPTA: Interesting point. Unions have been longtime advocates of workers' rights. They have also preached that better working conditions may lead to higher quality work. Perhaps the data from this study will provide more fuel for the fire of the labor unions.

• American Psychological Association
• Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
• University of Michigan

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