Multitasking and stress


Published on

1 Like
  • Be the first to comment

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

Multitasking and stress

  1. 1. Multitasking and Stress<br />Doing too many things at once is not only unproductive; it can actually make you sick<br />By Chris Woolston<br />CONSUMER HEALTH INTERACTIVE<br />In this high-tech, high-pressure age, multitasking has become a national pastime. No matter where we are or what we're doing, we can always add one more ball to the juggling act. Many people regularly check emails on their Blackberry while talking on the cell phone, pausing only to yell at other drivers. <br />"Because of all of the new electronic gadgets like cell phones, Palm Pilots, and other personal digital assistants, multitasking has exploded in the last 10 years," says David Meyer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. <br />Doing two or three tasks simultaneously may seem like the height of efficiency -- and it would be, if a person had more than one brain. In the real world, multitasking actually wastes time and reduces work quality, Meyer says.<br />Missed deadlines and shoddy work may get a person fired, but they're not the most worrisome consequence of multitasking. According to Meyer, juggling tasks can be very stressful. In the short term, stress makes you feel lousy. In the long term, it can become a serious threat to health -- and that's not even counting the dangers of sending a fax while changing lanes. <br />One brain, one task<br />Meyer sees three major types of multitaskers. Some people do it out of desperation. In their minds, talking to a client while doing research on the Internet is the only way to keep up. Other people multitask impulsively. They'll abandon a report in mid-sentence to check email without thinking about the consequences. The third group multitasks with pride. "Many people delusionally believe that they're good at this," he says.<br />Some people's jobs, like air traffic controllers and emergency room doctors and nurses, virtually demand multitasking under pressure. But in reality, nobody can effectively do more than one remotely complicated thing at a time. "The brain is not equipped to do heavy-duty multitasking," Meyer says. "People are being asked to do multiple things, but they would need superhuman abilities."<br />Multitasking is especially futile if the different activities use the same part of the brain, Meyer says. For example, the brain only has one language channel. If a person tries to read while talking, one or both tasks will get short shrift. <br />Multiplying stress<br />Whenever demands exceed abilities, stress is bound to follow. Multitasking is especially stressful when the tasks are important, as they often are on the job, Meyer says. The brain responds to impossible demands by pumping out adrenaline and other stress hormones that put a person "on edge." These hormones provide a quick burst of energy, but energy won't make multitasking easier, he says. An old pickup can't go 150 miles per hour no matter how much fuel you put in the tank or how hard you step on the gas. <br />Over time, the stress of multitasking may even become dangerous, Meyer says. A steady flow of stress hormones can strain the body and threaten health. As recently reported by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, numerous studies have found that on-the-job stress can cause headaches, stomach trouble, and sleep problems. Chronic work-related stress can lead to chronic problems, including back pain, heart disease, and depression.<br />Wrong way to work<br />Not only is multitasking risky, it's counterproductive. In 2001, Meyer and colleagues published a report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance that exposed a major pitfall of juggling tasks. <br />The researchers studied young people who were attempting to quickly shift from one job to another. Without exception, the shift took time -- time where absolutely nothing productive happened. In many cases, the lag was only a half second or so. But Meyer notes that's a long time to be lost in space, especially if one of your tasks involves operating a steering wheel. Even if you're multitasking at the office, all of those half-seconds can add up to a serious waste of time. <br />It's worth noting that these subjects were in a laboratory setting, and they were trying their best to move quickly from one task to another. In an office setting, shifting gears can take much, much longer. Gloria Mark and colleagues at the University of California at Irvine recently observed how actual office workers handle interruptions, whether it's a phone call, an incoming email, or a visitor to their cubicle. As reported in 2005 at a conference for the Association for Computing Machinery, the average worker needed a staggering 25 minutes to return to their original task after the interruption was over. <br />To make things worse, Meyer says, multitasking can interfere with short-term memory. "Anytime you're trying to multitask, you have less attention available to store memories," he says. For example, a person who tries to read email while talking on the phone will have a hard time retaining any of the information. And if the phone rings while a person's in the middle of a thought, it will take a while to find that thought again -- assuming it can be recovered at all. <br />Short-term memory loss isn't always a short-term problem. The flood of adrenaline and other stress hormones unleashed by trying to do too much at once can actually cause permanent damage to the brain cells that store memories, Meyer says. After years of multitasking, a person might eventually have trouble doing just one thing at a time. <br />So what should a person do when the phone rings and the email pings? Meyer urges people to organize their work life to cut down on multitasking as much as possible. That means ignoring the phone and turning off your email alerts while you're working on an important project. You can always check your messages later. When that task is over, take a break to clear your thoughts and refresh your mind. <br />No matter how demanding your job is, you can take steps to protect yourself from stress. Meyer recommends meditation, regular exercise and a healthy diet. Just don't try doing it all three at once. <br />-- Chris Woolston, MS, is a contributing editor at Consumer Health Interactive. He is coauthor of Generation Extra Large, Rescuing Our Children from the Epidemic of Obesity (Perseus paperback, 2006).<br />left0<br />Do You Multitask?<br />By Rosanne D'Ausilio, Ph.D.January/February 2006<br />Does this ever happen to you?  Do you feel overworked?  Overwhelmed?  Overtired?  Most of us are busier than ever.  We're doing our jobs, plus sometimes the jobs of one or two gone-but-not-replaced colleagues – and doing it all with less support.  The Institute for the Future finds that employees of Fortune 1,000 companies send and receive 178 messages a day and are interrupted an average of at least three times an hour. <br />How many of you take several calls at once, jockeying back and forth trying to keep each conversation separate (and remember where you left off each time)?  Or how often are you on the phone with a caller, text chatting with another, and coaching your co-worker all at the same time? <br />"Do more with less," is the unforgiving mantra of business in the contact center industry today.  Make more decisions and get more stuff done – with fewer people and less resources.  It's reported in a study by the Families and Work Institute in New York conducted on 1,003 employees that 45 percent of US workers feel they are asked or expected to work on too many tasks at once.  Is this true for you?  <br />How do we do it?  We become very good at multitasking.  We do it everywhere – largely because of technology.  But does this mean you have less time to do real work?  How do you manage to stay sane in the face of these crazy demands? <br />A growing body of scientific research shows that multitasking can actually make you less efficient.  Trying to do two or three things at once or in quick succession can take longer overall than doing them one at a time, and may leave you with reduced brainpower to perform each task.  That is why most call centers have their agents take only one call at a time. <br />Research shows that multitasking increases stress, diminishes perceived control, and may cause physical discomfort such as stomachaches or headaches not to mention shoddy work, mismanaged time, rote solutions, and forgetfulness.  Have you ever noticed that as you are working on one task – or one call, thoughts about another task – or the caller on hold – creep into your consciousness?  <br />It doesn't mean we can't do several things at the same time, but we're kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without a cost.  Our brains allow us to appear as though we can comfortably multitask.  We do have an excellent filtering mechanism to switch our attention rapidly from one thought to the next.  At the same time, rather than lose unattended thoughts, this mechanism keeps them active in the recesses of the brain.  However, the more we juggle, the less efficient we become at performing any one task.  And the longer we go before returning to an interrupted task, the harder it is to remember just where we left off.  Multitasking diminishes our productivity and makes us work harder just to feel like we are barely keeping up. <br />No one solution works for everyone.  Here are some actions to try: <br />Estimate the time it takes to complete a task.  For instance, list the tasks you plan to complete during a four-hour period and write down how long you think each task will take.  Then, time yourself.  Find the percentage by which you underestimate, and adjust your expectations accordingly. <br />Write things down – offload what's on your mind onto paper.  Keep a pad of paper and pen by your bedside and write those thoughts that either keep you up, or wake you up, in the middle of the night.  I get my best ideas in the middle of the night and write them down so I can get back to sleep peacefully. <br />Allow yourself to complete a task – the most productive way to work. <br />Remove distractions: close your door (if you have one), do not check your email, and turn off the ringer on your phone, cell phone, pager, and fax. <br />Schedule down time for yourself.  Do something different – refresh your system so you return to work with a clean perspective and the ability to work more effectively. <br />Do these sound familiar?  Many are techniques for de-stressing and rightly so.  Multitasking is stressful.  Technology can multitask endlessly.  Humans cannot.  I find it fascinating that while writing this article, I've been interrupted by phone calls, emails, staff, and my mind reminding me what is left in my planner to be done today! <br />Research shows that the ability to multi-task stems from a spot right behind the forehead.  That's the anterior part of the region neuroscientists call the "executive" part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex.  When we assess tasks, prioritize them, and assign mental resources, the frontal lobes are doing most of the work.  This same region of the brain is where we pull off another uniquely human trick that is key to multi-tasking – "marking" the spot at which a task has been interrupted, so we can return to it later. <br />However, the prefrontal cortex is the most damaged as a result of prolonged stress – particularly the kind of stress that makes a person feel out-of-control and helpless.  The kind of stress, for example, that you might feel when overwhelmed by the demands of multi-tasking. <br />Such stress also will cause the death of brain cells in another region, the hippocampus, which is critical to the formation of new memories.  Damage there can hobble a person's ability to learn and retain new facts and skills. <br />When a person multi-tasks well, without errors or disastrous results, it is usually because one or more of the tasks engaged in has become automatic.  For example, I can eat lunch and read the newspaper at the same time, because eating really involves no conscious thought. <br />In conclusion, just as multitasking has it's drawbacks in business and personal activities, it can also be counterproductive and stress inducing in the call center.  Look for ways to avoid multitasking to increase your overall effectiveness and quality. <br />Rosanne D'Ausilio, Ph.D., an industrial psychologist and President of Human Technologies Global, Inc., specializes in profitable call center operations in human performance management.  Over the last 20 years, she has provided needs analyses, instructional design, and customized customer service skills trainings.  Also offered is agent and facilitator university certification through Purdue University's Center for Customer Driven Quality.  Contact Rosanne at or go to to sign up for the complimentary monthly e-newsletter<br />