Multitasking drops IQ: what the new research says
The Sector > Quality > In The Field > New research busts the myth of multitasking, showing drop of 10 IQ points

New research busts the myth of multitasking, showing drop of 10 IQ points

by Freya Lucas

February 06, 2024

Shifting rapidly between many tasks – sometimes known as ‘multitasking’ – can cost as much as 40 per cent of available productive time, and is the equivalent of dropping ten IQ points from cognitive performance, similar to the effects which come from consuming marijuana, research has shown. 


The work of Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chief Innovation Officer at Manpowergroup, and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, shows that while multitasking results in a feeling of productivity, it is ultimately dividing attentional resources and “stretching us thin.”


The economic costs of such distractions are outlined in Dr Chamorro-Premuzic’s latest work I, Human: AI, Automation, and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Unique, which notes that between 60 to 70 per cent of workers reported being distracted at work, which amounts to approximately $650 billion in lost productivity in the US alone. 


Video conference calls are a particularly popular time for multitasking, explaining the preference of many to be off camera. Some employees are now utilising AI to record, transcribe and summarise meetings, and having an avatar attend in their place, which participates in a similar way to a human would. 


Dr Chamorro-Premuzic believes the future of video conference calls may be every employee sending their AI or virtual avatar to attend on their behalf, speaking to other AI assistants, while humans find alternative activities that captivate their full attention.


Downsides of multitasking


There are a number of pitfalls to multitasking, which Dr Chamorro-Premuzic outlines in I, Human, including: 


  • Lower retention of knowledge
  • ‘Zoom fatigue’ from too many virtual meetings 
  • Zoning out during long meetings 
  • It is obvious to others that your full attention isn’t on the task to hand
  • Multitasking during meetings results in a low ROI for meeting time


Instead, to build a culture of engagement and productivity, Dr Chamorro-Premuzic says leaders must reassess their approach to meetings and task management. 


“It’s imperative to foster an environment where deep work is valued over the illusion of busyness,” he said, proposing solutions including: 


  • Restructuring meetings to ensure they are necessary, goal-oriented, and inclusive only to those directly involved
  • Encouraging breaks between tasks to reduce cognitive load and provide training on effective workload management
  • Leveraging technology to automate routine tasks, freeing up human intellect for complex problem-solving


Ultimately, however, Dr Chamorro-Premuzic said that professionals in all sectors and industries have a personal responsibility to their working roles, and must cultivate the discipline to focus and the courage to communicate when a meeting is redundant.


By embracing these strategies, he said, “we can transform the modern workspace into a realm where quality trumps quantity, attention is preserved, and genuine productivity is the norm rather than the exception.”


This piece has been adapted from one which first appeared in Fast Company. Access the original here. 

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