Do You Multitask?

By Rosanne D’Ausilio, Ph.D.

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.

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?

“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?

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?

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.

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?

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.

No one solution works for everyone. Here are some actions to try:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Allow yourself to complete a task — the most productive way to work.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2006]