3 studies show how multitasking drains creativity and productivity

I have always had jobs that forced me to juggle many competing and sometimes conflicting priorities. Such is the life of an editor in chief and content strategist for a large organization. I can’t say this is the ideal kind of work for my personality. But, until recently, I thought this just came with the territory for the kind of work I do. Besides, I was always proud to adapt to the pressure cooker and thrive despite it. I say “until recently” because I have just discovered that the way my jobs have been structured is seriously bad for my creativity and productivity. It is a minor miracle that I was able to accomplish anything excellent under those circumstances.

Recently, my organization went through a major reorganization. As part of that reorg, I took on a new role as global search strategy and expertise lead for IBM. I am no longer editor in chief of ibm.com, which means (among other things) that the number of my projects and teams has been drastically reduced. In the short time on the new job, the most important change for me personally is I no longer have to multitask on eight conference calls a day with 15 different projects. I can focus on two primary projects and only join calls where needed. This frees me to spend most of my time thinking about what our strategy should be and creating resources to promote and educate people about the strategy.

Lots of things changed when I abandoned multitasking:

My stress level went way down: Just ask my dog Sophie–she is my helper dog who puts her head on my keyboard when she senses that I’m about to blow a gasket. She used to do that at least once a day. She hasn’t done that in a month.
I stopped needing to work every night and most weekends: I used to feel guilty when I took a night off; no longer.
My job became much more enjoyable: Thinking is my favorite past time; I now have much more time for it.
My tolerance for wasted time went way down: I used to feel compelled to join every call where my expertise would be helpful; I am now empowered to say “no.”
My focus went way up: I never really stopped thinking about those 15 projects, they just became background noise. The noise of those 15 projects prevented me from focusing on the most important one. The difference is like trying to work in a crowded train station versus a solitary office.
My creativity became like a bubbling spring of ideas: I used to have a dry well most of the time. Now I am filling notebooks with new ideas.
My productivity went way up: I’ll take the rest of this blog to talk about this.
Most of those things relate to my quality of work/life, except for productivity, which is something particularly important to my employer. I can’t believe how much I am able to get done in a day. Projects that used to take weeks, and only typically got done done after hours and on weekends, now take a day or two, and get done during office hours. Projects that used to require six or more drafts now only require two. Though I am only focusing on a couple of projects at a time, I can get two or three done in a week. Fifteen projects used to take me six months when I had to multitask.

It turns out, my experiences are quite common. Especially in the creative trades–and writing for digital requires as much creativity as any emerging trade–multitasking should be avoided if at all possible. After the break, I’ll direct you to three very compelling studies that demonstrate what a drain multitasking is to creativity and productivity.

Three studies that recommend abandoning multitasking

1. The best I was able to find came from Peter Bregman of the Harvard Business Review. He echoes a lot of what I describe in my experience. He also links to compelling studies himself.

2. Another one I want to point to comes from experts in agile methods. As near as I can tell, most of the productivity gains from agile methods come from reducing multitasking. When people are focused on one thing at a time, they are simply much more productive. Not coincidentally, I am able to focus on one or two projects a week because they are managed in an agile way.

3. The two studies above focus on productivity. Dan Goodwin makes a forceful case for the negative affects on creativity.