The Many Costs of Multitasking
By Elizabeth Ruiz Frost
Lawyers take on many tasks — writing, researching, counseling, professional service. And most of us are real people too, which yields additional duties like paying bills, doing laundry, commuting and attending children’s dance recitals. With all the plates we must keep spinning, few of us can control our schedules to avoid multitasking altogether. But studies suggest multitasking isn’t actually the time-saver we think it is. And further, multitasking might make us worse at our jobs (and almost everything else!).
This article begins with the simple problem of multitasking and time management. The conclusion is, unsurprisingly, that multitasking doesn’t save time. Then this article explores some research (but interesting research, I promise) on brain capacity and whether multitasking affects our self-control. Did you eat too many potato chips at lunch? Blame multitasking!
Multitasking and Time Management
Many people assume they’re more efficient because they multitask. In fact, some are so proud of their multitasking that they list it as a skill on their resume. But studies suggest that multitasking doesn’t make us more efficient. In fact, it probably does just the opposite.
Imagine this scenario, which might sound familiar: a busy lawyer sits at her desk with only a few hours before a lunch meeting. In those hours, she needs to respond to a client’s email, look over a loan agreement and get final comments to the other side. Her email dings every 30 seconds or so, and the phone rings every half hour. So she starts in on the client letter, which should only take a few minutes, but then an email from her partner comes in with a few more comments to that loan agreement — better to incorporate those now than wait. Now back to the letter. Then another email comes in —phew, she can delete that CLE spam. But shoot, she wonders, what she was doing again…? Oh yeah, the client letter!
Each time she shifts from one task to another, there’s a transitional cost. A University of Michigan study showed that participants lost time every time they switched between tasks — any type of task.1 The more complicated the task, the study found, the longer the transition time. In real terms, it might take a few seconds to get back up to speed on a straightforward task if interrupted, but a little longer to reacclimate oneself to a more complicated project.
The frequency of these losses and their length can be staggering. A 2005 study found that its subjects — American workers in the information technology sector — got derailed from a task every 11 minutes.2 Do 11-minute spurts give writers enough time to make real, quality progress on a writing project? Probably not. Then, according to this same study, it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back to the original task after being disrupted.3 That means a letter that would have taken 30 uninterrupted minutes to write would take about an hour and 20 minutes, even if interrupted just twice!
And that’s only accounting for the rebound time. But not only is there rebound time to return to the original task, we also lose time getting back up to speed with what we’ve already done on the original task. Have you asked yourself lately, “hmm, where was I?” That’s because your brain has to take a moment to get back up to speed, like the “on the last episode of…” recaps at the beginning of TV shows.
So how can we produce quality work efficiently in light of these statistics? Setting aside longer pockets of uninterrupted time for writing projects might help. To do so, we can turn off email alerts and vow to check email just once an hour. We can keep our cell phone out of reach while writing. If coworkers are a distraction, work with the door closed. And finally, when possible, we can aim to work on a project to completion to maintain a steady train of thought throughout. Working steadily without wasting time getting back up to speed should increase the efficiency of writing.
Multitasking and Mindset
Beyond the problems of time and efficiency, multitaskers may be pushing their brains beyond capacity. The human brain can handle doing a couple simple, routine tasks at once, like brushing teeth and watching TV. But when tasks become more complicated — like, for example, legal analysis and writing — the brain stumbles a bit when pushed to do both. Most people tend to agree that if a person texts while driving, one of those functions will suffer, right? A recent Emory University study concluded that multitasking indeed debilitates us, but the study suggests the debilitation reaches even beyond the two or three tasks we’re juggling at that moment.4 When people multitask, they have to switch mindsets from task to task. And switching between mindsets depletes their ability to control themselves. So with each transition, they perform later tasks that require self-regulation less effectively.
Now, a little background on mindsets: a mindset is a mental state that can make a person respond to stimuli in a particular manner. For example, working on a group project that requires collaboration might trigger a collectivist mindset.5 Mindset is motivated by a person’s current situation. In other words, the demands of the task before us will affect our mindset.
Performing tasks requires the right mindset for the job, so multitasking would require multiple mindsets. But mindset theorists believe we may not be able to employ more than one mindset at a time. The reason is that each mindset requires that we approach stimuli in different ways. We cannot take in information, evaluate it and apply it simultaneously.
Here’s why: making a decision creates a hard break between mindsets. Before making a decision, the brain gathers information and mulls it over. Once a decision is made, the brain switches to an implementation mindset and focuses on attaining the goal. After the switch, the mindset is no longer evaluative, but goal-oriented. Thus, mindset changes as the situation demands.6 So say goodbye to your illusions that multitasking makes you better. It’s actually just pushing your brain too far.
Multitasking and Self-Control
Now we know that the brain can’t properly perform two functions at once, but what’s worse, the researchers in the Emory study concluded that switching mindsets between tasks can erode one’s self-control. Mindset theorists believe that mindset changes are self-regulated, not automatic. So mindset is a function that takes some work on our part, even if subconsciously. When we switch tasks and mindsets, therefore, we use up limited brain space. (“Limited brain space” is my oversimplification of the more complicated concept of executive function.) When we overtap that resource, studies suggest we are prone to failures of self-control on subsequent tasks. Those failures could erode our judgment, our persistence in the face of challenging tasks and even our diet!
Imagine the transitions between tasks in your daily life that may lead to mindset shifts. If transitioning really does chip away at one’s ability to self-regulate, think how those depletions might affect a typical lawyer at work. The study suggests at least three possible effects that could impact a lawyer’s practice. First, when shifting between tasks throughout the day, his efficiency may suffer, so he cannot work as quickly or diligently.7 Accordingly, the theory suggests, he would be less likely to persevere with difficult tasks. Thus, he might be less likely to keep working on the draft of the brief that’s due tomorrow and more likely to save it for later when he will have even less time and the task will become even more daunting.
Second, mindset switching may deplete his decision confidence. Studies suggest that people with depleted self-control resources are less capable of complex, thoughtful decisionmaking.8 Essentially, people with exhausted brains make simplified choices and rely heavily on potentially faulty decision-making strategies (i.e., guesswork and profiling). Because decision confidence rests in the thoroughness of our decision-making process, our lawyer will feel less confident in his decisions when he knows he may have been hasty. That could lead him to a whole lot more instances of “I don’t know,” and advocacy is harder without confidence.
Third, when we deplete our brain space, we may be less able to regulate emotions.9 Therefore, our lawyer may be less able to relate calmly and professionally with opposing counsel or a difficult client. He might dash off a flaming email that he wouldn’t have sent with a clearer head.
We can’t cut all of these different tasks out of our jobs. So how can we be most effective in a job that requires us to wear many hats? Perhaps the most practical answer is to group activities that require a particular mindset to reduce transitions.10 For example, you might create a block in your day for writing, a block for meetings, and a block for responding to email. And because legal writing requires judgment, focus and perseverance, consider scheduling writing time for earlier in the day, before you’ve worn out your ability to self-regulate with other tasks.
In conclusion, I’ll offer this analogy between the human brain and retail. In retail, the loss between inventory and sales — primarily due to theft — is called shrinkage. Shrinkage accounts for about two percent of sales. Two percent doesn’t sound so bad, but that two percent equals over $30 billion in lost merchandise nationally. Accordingly, retailers thoughtfully craft shrinkage reduction strategies.
Now consider the mental transitional costs at work caused by multitasking as shrinkage. A lawyer’s losses due to that shrinkage may account for a relatively small portion of his day, but over the course of a month or a year, that lawyer could waste disappointing amounts of time and erode the quality of his practice. So just like a retailer, he can strategize to combat the problem. He can think about the day’s tasks and how best to sequence them, and consciously calendar his writing projects to set himself up for success.
1. Joshua Rubenstein, et al., “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching,” 27:4 Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 763, 776-77 (2001).
2. Gloria Mark, et al., “No task left behind? Examining the nature of fragmented work” in CHI 2005 321, 324 (April 2005).
3. Id. at 326.
4. Hamilton, et al., “Being of Two Minds: Switching mindsets exhausts self-regulatory resources,” 115:1 Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 13 (May 2011).
5. Id. at 13.
6. Id. at 14.
7. Id. at 19-20.
8. Id. at 20.
9. Id. at 21-22.
10. Id. at 22-23.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Ruiz Frost teaches legal research and writing and other courses at the University of Oregon School of Law.
An archive of The Legal Writer articles is available here.
© 2015 Elizabeth Ruiz Frost