Multitasking Makes You <em>Less</em> Efficient: Study

Multitasking Makes YouEfficient: Study


You may think that coping with challenges in a busy workplace will impress your boss. Both of you, however, might be surprised to learn that juggling your assignments may be making you less, not more, efficient. That’s the conclusion of a study by management experts who looked at the effects of employees having to wear multiple hats on the job.

Different tasks call for different states of mind, called mindsets. Dealing with a troubled child on the phone requires a different mindset than dealing with a customer in your office. You do a better job, the researchers found, when you do as much as you can using one mindset before switching gears to another.

The study measured the ability of workers to perform various mental exercises after spending time switching mindsets to complete different tasks. The effort of switching mindsets seemed to cause people mental exhaustion. People who didn’t have to switch mindsets often performed better on follow-up tests of mental ability.

One drawback of the study was its use of indirect measurements for estimating mental functioning. For example, participants were asked to control their laughter while viewing a comic film. Frequent mindset switching before the entertainment made it harder for the people to suppress their laughter. The conclusions may be strengthened if the results are confirmed using direct measurements of mental abilities.

Switching mindsets, multitasking or trying to do two or more tasks simultaneously, may have other drawbacks. Besides decreasing your efficiency, it can cause poor short term memory and decision making, and may even contribute to weight gain.

If you really want to impress your boss, try doing as much work as you can using one mindset before switching to another. You might be less stressed, more mentally organized, and your improved job performance will be more impressive than your apparent ability to juggle.

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A mindset is a state of mind, which directs the mind to respond to a task in a particular way. A recent study evaluated the effect of changing mindsets in further functioning of mind and also decision-making. A total of five experiments were carried out to analyze the effects of various changes in mindsets. It was found that upon frequent switching of mindsets, the subsequent performance of participants decreased. “In short, when an employee must wear multiple hats, she should try to change hats as infrequently as possible.”


In different situations and for solving different types of problems, people have to adopt different mindsets. Mindsets greatly influence judgment, bias, and perspective. Researchers felt that adopting a particular type of mindset is also work for the mind. They felt that a person changing mindset frequently, might exhaust the mind in the process, and consequently, decrease their mental performance. They tested this hypothesis by performing various experiments in which “test” participants were purposefully made to switch mindset frequently and “controls” were made to maintain a particular type of mindset. Later, all the participants were asked to perform different mental exercises, and performance of these exercises was compared.


  • The first experiment required 2 mindsets for a particular problem. Participants were made to think either “why to solve” or “how to solve” the problem. In the test group, the questions were arranged such that, after “why to solve” came a question on “how to solve”. For control participants, all questions were either “why to solve” or “how to solve”. Later, all the participants were asked to drink a vinegar-based drink. The volume of drinks consumed by each participant was measured to estimate the ability of the mind to overcome distaste for a sour drink.

  • In the second experiment, mindset switching was done by asking the participants to choose different equipment by adopting different ways of choosing. Later, they were shown a comedy clipping and asked to control their laughter.
  • In the third experiment, test participants were made to use different languages to answer questions. Hand-grip was measured before and after inducing mindset switching.
  • In the fourth experiment, participants were asked to play computer games, in which they had to either continue to play or avoid further play. After this, they were asked to solve an unsolvable puzzle and the time that they spent on solving the puzzle was calculated. In the fifth part, switching was done between individualistic and collective mindsets. Later, the short term memory and decision-making of participants was measured.
  • Results

    • In the first experiment, participants who switched their mindsets could drink very few ounces of the vinegar-based drink.

  • In the second experiment, participants who switched their mindset failed to control their laughter. Their facial expressiveness score was 11.3 while it was around 6 in participants who adopted a single mindset.
  • In the third experiment, “participants in the language-switching condition performed worse on the hand-grip task, than participants in English only condition.”
  • In the fourth experiment, participants who switched their mindsets spent less time in solving the puzzle. The fifth experiment also revealed that short term memory and decision making was poor in participants who switched their mindsets.
  • Shortcomings/Next steps

    In the present experiment, the performance of the mind after mindset manipulations was measured by indirect methods, such as drinking vinegar-based drinks etc. These proxy measures may not be the actual representation of the capacity of the mind. Further studies are necessary in which the actual capacity of the mind is measured.


    This study has proved that frequent mindset change greatly hampers subsequent mental functioning. These findings are very relevant for employees who must change their mindset very frequently during the course of their routine work. The performance by employees can be enhanced by asking them to do the work of a particular mindset continuously, and then do the work requiring a different mindset. This would exhaust the mind less and improve work efficiency. The opposite is also true, i.e. those people who are exhausted with excess work continue to adopt a particular mindset, even if the situation demands a switchover of mindset.

    For More Information:

    Being of Two Minds: Switching Mindsets Impairs Subsequent Functioning of Mind
    Publication Journal: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, December 2010
    By Ryan Hamilton; Kathleen D Vohs; From the Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia and University of Minnesota, Minnesota

    *FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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