The Office Zen Master and the Art of Multitasking

“Successful people focus on one thing at a time. You’re working on way too many things at the same time. You need to quit some of your projects and focus.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten this advice from colleagues and mentors. No matter how many times I hear it, I can’t seem to follow it. But I’m not sure I need to change.

Working on multiple things at the same time keeps me busy, constantly learning, and having fun. I’m more efficient at work when I multitask because I can work on other projects while I’m waiting for people to respond to my emails, return my calls, or complete their role in a project.  

There seems to be a lot of confusion about whether or not people should multitask. Although many employers seek to hire multitaskers, a lot of smart people say that multitaskers do worse than if they focused on just one activity. So, should people try to learn how to multitask?

In one study, researchers from Microsoft and the University of California observed thirty-two employees during one week of work. The researchers monitored every digital move the workers made, including the duration of their web browsing, mouse and keyboard activity, and when their computer went into sleep mode. Workers also responded to “probes” that asked questions about mood, whether they were challenged, and their productivity.

The purpose of collecting these data was to learn whether and how employees use multitasking as a way to take a break from their work. Specifically, the study looked at when and how employees get distracted in different communication contexts (face-to-face vs. digital) and at different time points (prior to communicating with someone; throughout the day; and at the end of the day).

What did they find? In general, context made no difference in a person’s ability to multitask — that is, employees completed their work with no difference in quality regardless of whether they were interrupted by a colleague, email, or other distraction. However, there was an emotional cost to switching tasks: people felt more stress, higher levels of frustration, and more time pressure to complete their work.  

For the three time points, the most interesting finding was that different mental states led people to be more susceptible to certain types of interaction. For example, a “rote” state (i.e., working on a simple task) resulted in more face-to-face interactions, and a “bored” state led to both Facebook and face-to-face interaction. On the other hand, focused or aroused states throughout the day led people to write more.  The more time an employee spent communicating with others, and the more total app switches that were logged, the less productive he or she felt at the end of the day.

The authors had an interesting take on these findings: “People might move toward online or offline communications that lead them to be in a state where they are more balanced psychologically.” They call this emotional homeostasis. The idea is that people multitask to reduce tension and find balance during the workday.   

If that’s the case, what’s the best way to multitask at work?

First, it’s important to be aware of what communication style you prefer. You’ll feel more productive and happier if you have a good understanding of your communication preferences and which colleagues you work best with. For example, if you prefer to finish a project with face-to-face conversation versus an email, make this clear to colleagues. You’ll feel less stressed at being interrupted by written communication throughout the day.   

Second, your brain has to adjust every time you switch tasks, which makes it hard to filter out irrelevant information. To reduce the effects of task switching, it can help to bundle similar tasks together. For example, write all of your project-related emails and notes at the same time each morning. I also use this technique a lot at home: I’ll cluster housework tasks like cleaning and doing the laundry while listening to a podcast.   

My feeling is that people associate multitasking with being distracted, but that’s not always the case. Multitasking is bad if you’re doing it because you’re bored or need a distraction, but can be good if you’re happy with your work and simply want to make progress on additional projects. It’s important to be aware of how you’re feeling while you work to determine whether you’re increasing efficiency or simply reducing boredom. I call this awareness of work emotional states being an “Office Zen master.”

Just like Bruce Lee learned to master his own body enough to do one-finger push-ups and fend off huge armies of fighters, being an Office Zen Master can help you multitask and become more efficient at work.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com