Joanne L. Perron, MD, District IX Committee on Physician Work-Life Balance co-chair
Robert J. Wallace, MD, MBA, District IX Committee on Physician Work-Life Balance co-chair, and I recently presented on “The Menace of Multitasking” at the Annual Clinical Meeting in Chicago. We chose the topic of multitasking because it is the opposite of mindfulness and decided to use the alliterative word “menace” because of mounting evidence that multitasking has an adverse impact on our daily lives and, more importantly, on the lives of the patients for whom we are responsible.
I was once a proud multitasker and boasted of my amazing ability to talk on the phone, breastfeed my son, and stir marinara sauce while balancing on one leg and rubbing my dog’s belly with my other foot. In retrospect, rather than saving time, it made me feel more rushed, and I wasn't fully present for my baby. How was that satisfying?
Robert J. Wallace, MD, MBA, District IX Committee on Physician Work-Life Balance co-chair, demonstrates multitasking.
Multitasking is defined as doing two or more tasks simultaneously or performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. It becomes more difficult with complexity and in unfamiliar situations. Research across various disciplines has shown that multitasking decreases productivity, information retrieval, creativity, and performance and increases stress, anxiety, workload, and error.
Research done in a busy emergency room found that interruptions occur 6.6 times per hour on average. Beepers, phones, texts, or requests for help, along with our own restless minds, contribute to distracting us from the tasks at hand. Another study showed that, after being interrupted, study participants failed to return to their original tasks 18.5% of the time or spent less time on their original tasks compared to those who weren’t interrupted.
Interruptions and multitasking are a dangerous combination for task accuracy or completion. Interestingly, one of the participants in the study mentioned above, a resident physician, was told by his supervising physician to attend our ACM lecture and bring back pearls of wisdom on how to multitask more efficiently. I hope he can share the ominous truth about multitasking and interruptions, as well as their adverse impacts on our wellbeing and the safety of our patients.
A few people in the audience were not convinced that multitasking is harmful. Perhaps they belong to the 2% of the population that are super-multitaskers, blessed with extraordinary abilities. For the rest of us, however, it is time to knock multitasking off its undeserved pedestal and erase its glorification. An organizational paradigm shift will likely be required, changing our culture to support provider mindfulness and presence—the opposites of multitasking.
If you’d like to hear more about the menace of multitasking, I recently did a podcast interview with ReachMD’s Partners in Practice program.