The Insidious Harms of Multitasking

Written By John E. Grant  |  Productivity  |  2 Comments

Are you unconsciously cheating yourself and your clients by multitasking? Many people assume that multitasking creates efficiency, but as Oregon Law School professor Elizabeth Ruiz Frost writes in the February/March edition of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, this logic is deeply flawed. Prof. Frost outlines the growing body of research showing how multitasking, far from improving our ability to get things done, actually hurts both the efficiency and quality of the work being performed. Not only that, it often has a harmful effect on seemingly unrelated tasks.

Multitasking, she writes, is empirically proven to be harmful in at least three specific ways. The first is time management: Research shows that people who multitask have substantially worse time management skills than those who do not, and those who self-identify as “good multitaskers” are typically the worst of the worst (that last bit per a Stanford study not cited by Prof. Frost). The reason? Your brain incurs switching costs when it transfers attention from one domain to another. Those switching costs average as much as 25 minutes per switch, causing significant delays in getting the original task done.

The second way multitasking is harmful has to do with mindset—the mental state a person must achieve in order to make a particular type of decision. When working on one thing at a time, a person’s brain is able to enter the mindset best suited to the task at hand. When that task is complete, or when a decision about that task is made, the brain reaches a natural state of closure and allows itself to readily enter a new mindset for a new task. But when forced to switch between tasks requiring different mindsets, the brain experiences two problems: It becomes confused about which mindset to apply to which task, and it doesn’t do as well at achieving closure of a mindset when one of the tasks is complete.

Third, Prof. Frost notes that juggling mindsets without completing tasks has the longer-term effect of diminishing self control. In short, the mental energy it takes to keep multiple mindsets open deprives the brain of the resources it needs to make quality decisions in other realms. This can manifest itself in surprising ways such as overspending or overeating, but it also saps our willpower to finish important tasks and diminishes our ability to make complex decisions. Specifically, “people with exhausted brains make simplified choices and rely heavily on potentially faulty decision-making strategies ([e.g.] guesswork and profiling).”

Although Prof. Frost doesn’t draw a direct correlation between lawyer multitasking and the outcome of legal matters, to me the implications are clear. First, if a lawyer is billing hourly and allows himself to multitask, he is almost certainly going to overcharge clients. Even if he “turns off the clock” while he completes the interrupting task, the switching costs for the lawyer to re-engage in the previous task will add up. As Prof. Frost points out, these switching costs “mean[] a letter that would have taken 30 uninterrupted minutes to write would take about an hour and 20 minutes [] if interrupted just twice!” And especially when the lawyer has an hourly billing target, you know who will wind up footing the bill for the extra time.

But I think the findings about multitasking’s impact on complex decision-making is far worse. Making complex decisions is what we lawyers are paid to do, and the research unequivocally shows that multitasking lawyers will be worse at it. At best, this might mean lawyers taking longer to come to a good answer to a complex set of questions (and passing that cost on to the client). But at worst, it could just as easily mean missing out on the best answers, or even advocating for bad ones.

I would even suggest, as Sean Monahan did in a recent email exchange, that lawyers may have an ethical obligation to avoid multitasking (possibly by implementing at least a basic level of Legal Project Management). (Sean is working up a CLE on the topic for Seattle University Law School).

So how is a lawyer to avoid the multitasking trap with all of the demands on our time and attention? Prof. Frost offers a few basic strategies like turning off email alerts and phone/text ringers, and blocking out time on your calendar specifically for unitasking. At risk of sounding like a hammer in search of a nail, I’ll offer a more systemic approach: Build a Kanban board.

Kanban is an excellent tool for unitasking for a number of reasons. First, the simple act of giving visible form to your otherwise invisible knowledge work will change the way your brain perceives the work itself. You will escape the busy trap that plagues so many of us, and instead will almost immediately have a tangible sense of the work that is on your plate.

Second, when you see your work in a physical sense, you will make much better decisions about the relative priority of your tasks. Important work will jump out at you, and you can reinforce its importance through the use of vertical position on the Kanban board or by using iconography to indicate your Most Important Tasks (MITs). Using the theory of mindsets from Prof. Frost’s article, the board will help you get into the right mindset to make intelligent prioritization decisions so that you can get out of planning mode and get to work.

Third, Kanban encourages you to establish and embrace Work In Progress limits (or WIP Limits) that force strongly encourage you to finish work on one task before moving on to the next. These limits promote unitasking through the unofficial slogan of Kanban: Start less to finish more. Combined with time management methods like MITs and Pomodoros, they are powerful tools for making sure you get more things done and that your most important things are taken care of.

If you are interested in learning more about Kanban and other Agile methodologies for optimizing your workflows and improving your project management, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter using the form below. And if you’re ready to get started with Kanban today, check out these posts from my forthcoming book, Kanban For Lawyers or, better yet, get a copy of the book itself from Leanpub.

And if you want to talk about how Agile and Lean methods can help you improve your own law practice, don’t hesitate to start a conversation with me today.


© 2015 John E. Grant

Photo Credit: JD Hancock, licensed under CC BY 2.0

  • Somewhere I’ve read something that is sooo true “stop starting and start finishing”. In my opinion, it is better to start one project and finish it before starting another. However, there are digital tools that helps manage many projects or tasks at the same time. Kanban Tool – for example allows seamless time tracking of projects – this option seems very helpful to me.

  • Digital tools can be great, but they often have as many detractors as benefits. I strongly encourage people to use a physical Kanban board for at least a month before moving to a software board. I have a post on this topic forthcoming…

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