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To multitask or not multitask?

Studies associate multitasking with higher stress levels, but not for all

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The last two years I was heavily involved in research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) regarding stress and productivity patterns of knowledge workers. In collaboration with Gloria Mark at UCI and Ricardo Gutierrez-Osuna at A&M, I had the opportunity to investigate these issues both in the lab and in the field. It is not the first-time researchers study office work, but perhaps it is the first time that such studies are conducted longitudinally using an extensive array of imaging and wearable sensors, and the latest data science methods. These methodological advancements afford us new insights. Indeed, the initial conclusions are revealing. 

The most striking result thus far is the effect of frequent interruptions on stress levels. People who interrupted frequently their creative writing, to serve incoming emails, exhibited significantly higher stress levels than writers who served all their emails in a single batch. People who engaged in frequent interruptions also felt more burnt out for the same total work as the one delivered by the batch group. An exception to this rule was people with neurotic tendencies; for those individuals the reverse stress pattern was true. It appeared as if frequent interruptions acted as an odd form of therapy in such cases.

High frequency interruptions constitute a prevalent form of multitasking; they manifest as email interruptions at the office or as texting while driving in the car. The former fall under cognitive multitasking, while the latter under physical multitasking. From 2010 to 2017 I had the opportunity to study extensively texting while driving in a series of transportation research projects. Collectively, from my driving and office studies the last 10 years, multitasking in either its physical or cognitive forms emerges as a major stressor. In fact, in the case of texting while driving, we detected microtremors accompanying elevated stress levels – an indication that stress was strong enough to spawn observable `fight or flight’ responses.

Elevated stress is a telltale sign that subjects find it challenging to cope with multitasking; as a result, their psychophysiological system is constantly overloaded. The problem is that multitaskers may not realize this at the moment, because they are fully immersed in the act and never tried the alternative, so they can compare. The short-term health effects of such behaviors are probably negligible. Considering, however, that both servicing frequently emails and texting while driving are habitual behaviors, known to be repeated every day, the long-term health effects of multitasking are akin to chronic stressors. With respect to texting while driving, one has to add the increased risk of crash, as multitasking in the car significantly undermines driving performance.

Equally striking with these general trends is the existence of contrasting minority trends. In the case of texting while driving, we found a very small cohort of young drivers to whom multitasking incurred no additional stress; moreover, their driving performance remained competent with and without multitasking. It is not clear if this is an innate characteristic of the said individuals or was acquired through extensive multitasking from an early age.

In the case of office multitasking, as I have already mentioned, knowledge workers with neurotic tendencies exhibited lower instead of higher stress when engaged in frequent interruptions. The Romans famously used to say “sola dosis facit benino”, which in free translation means “the dose makes the poison”. To that I would add, “the dose makes the poison, depending on the ailment”. It appears that in the special case of neuroticism, frequent interruptions may not be the poison, but perhaps the cure.

As we move forward with this research, it is obvious from the initial results that we should maintain an open mind, looking not only for general but also for special trends. It is also obvious that the great majority of people should avoid multitasking either at the office or behind the wheel for long-term health reasons, and in the case of driving for short-term safety reasons, too. I understand that this is easier said than done, as most people are addicted to these behaviors by now. With this in mind and the end of the year around the corner, getting rid of multitasking is an excellent candidate for a new year resolution.

Relevant References to Read

[1] Zaman, S., Wesley, A., Silva, D.R.D.C., Buddharaju, P., Akbar, F., Gao, G., Mark, G., Gutierrez-Osuna, R. and Pavlidis, I., 2019. Stress and productivity patterns of interrupted, synergistic, and antagonistic office activities. Scientific Data6(1), pp.1-18.

[2] Akbar, F., Bayraktaroglu, A.E., Buddharaju, P., Da Cunha Silva, D.R., Gao, G., Grover, T., Gutierrez-Osuna, R., Jones, N.C., Mark, G., Pavlidis, I. and Storer, K., 2019, April. Email Makes You Sweat: Examining Email Interruptions and Stress Using Thermal Imaging. In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (p. 668). ACM.

[3] Pavlidis, I., Khatri, A., Buddharaju, P., Manser, M., Wunderlich, R., Akleman, E. and Tsiamyrtzis, P., 2018. Biofeedback arrests sympathetic and behavioral effects in distracted driving. IEEE Transactions on Affective Computing.

[4] Pavlidis, I., Dcosta, M., Taamneh, S., Manser, M., Ferris, T., Wunderlich, R., Akleman, E. and Tsiamyrtzis, P., 2016. Dissecting driver behaviors under cognitive, emotional, sensorimotor, and mixed stressorsScientific Reports6, p.25651.

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