Many business leaders think of multitasking as a great asset and they envision employees who can get more work accomplished. People also believe that the Millennial generation (ages 18 to 34) is better equipped to juggle multiple tasks. For the most part this is true. Millennials are known for being adept with all forms of technology and moving from one job to another, shifting between priorities with relative ease. Most employers post “The ability to multitask” as a skill on several job openings. Unfortunately, the latest research conducted in psychology and business productivity suggests we have gotten it all wrong.
The average Millennial switches their attention among media platforms 27 times per hour. Research shows that performing a mental task while multitasking yields similar results to performing the same task if you got no sleep the previous night. Additionally, prolonged multitasking will actually damage your brain. Regular multitaskers have less brain density in areas controlling cognitive and emotional functions. Alternating between tasks will lower your emotional intelligence. If you are switching your gaze from your laptop to your smartphone to a TV screen and back again, you stand to miss a lot of subtle nonverbal signals from the person you are talking with simultaneously. Researchers revealed that the brain cannot effectively handle more than two complex related activities at once.
Multitasking doesn’t always live up to the dream. Instead, it tends to mean a lack of focus and an increase in impulsivity. Experts predicted that the impact of networked living on youth today will increase their desire for instant gratification, cause them to settle for quick choices, and cause them to lack patience. Researchers at Stanford University conducted a famous experiment 50 years ago where children were given the chance to eat a single marshmallow immediately, or wait until someone returned later, at which point they would receive a second marshmallow. The kids were tracked later in life and it turns out those who waited for that second marshmallow fared much better than those who chose instant gratification. The participants who did not wait were more likely to have behavioral problems, be obese, use drugs and spend time in jail.
There’s a financial cost, too. Lack of productivity due to multitasking equates to global losses of $450 million per year and Millennial job-hopping costs the U.S. economy more than $30 million per year. Nearly nine out of ten Millennials plan to stay in a job less than three years and 21 percent say they have changed jobs in the past year. While the average job tenure for all workers 25 and older is 5.5 years, it is only three years for Millennials. The cost of job-hopping to employers is not marginal, either. The loss of one Millennial employee runs between $15,000 to $25,000, for most companies.
In terms of the turnover issue, employers can discourage Millennials from leaving too soon by offering finite terms of employment from the get-go. Giving Millennials a sense of purpose through meaningful work and projects that require a variety of skills has been shown to deter job-hopping. To help reduce the effects of multitasking, you should schedule blocks of uninterrupted time. There is time management method called the Pomodoro Technique that allows you to work for 25-minute chunks of time and then take a five-minute break. During this time you focus all your attention on a single task and take short breaks as a way to increase focus and productivity. Lastly, you can increase the ability to focus, concentrate, and reduce stress throughout the day by practicing either (or better yet, both) yoga or meditation. However you choose to do it, cutting back on or eliminating multitasking is well worth the effort. You will work more productively and finish tasks more quickly.
Clapp, W., Rubens, M., Sabharwal, J., Gazzaley, A. (2011). Deficit in switching between functions underlies the impact of multitasking memory in older adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108(17), 7212-7217.
Sanbonmatsu, D., Strayer, D., Medeiros-Ward, N., Watson, J. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLOSOne. 8(1), e54402.
Zetlin, M. (2016, July 30). Constant Multitasking Is Damaging Millennial Brains, Research Shows. Retrieved from: http://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/constant-multitasking-is-damaging-millennial-brains-research-shows.html
Jonathan Torres, M.S.
WKPIC Doctoral Intern