The Real Cost of Not Paying Attention

Back in 2005, Basex published a report, The Cost of Not Paying Attention, which focused, not surprisingly, on the cost of multitasking and interruptions.  As regular readers of this space know, we’ve continued to conduct extensive research on it as part of our multi-year Information Overload research program.

The term “multitasking” itself is a misnomer.  Simply put, it doesn’t exist.  Rather, the brain toggles rapidly between various tasks instead of processing things simultaneously.  This means that one’s attention is, in effect, divided when one attempts to “multitask.”

To varying extents, everyone multitasks.  Sometimes it is as simple as listening to quiet music while creating a document.  Other examples are more dramatic: participating in a conference call, writing a document, and managing three instant messaging sessions at the same time.

Multitasking is also not limited to the knowledge worker.  A recent survey by Nationwide Mutual Insurance shows that 72% of drivers say they engage in multitasking, i.e. doing other things while driving, such as making phone calls, eating, or drinking.  Broken down by age groups, it turns out that 16- and 17-year olds multitask to a lesser degree (60%) than drivers in the 18-44 bracket (80%).

Researchers have proven that attempts at multitasking while driving – achtung! – are dangerous.  This fact notwithstanding, the aforementioned survey results indicate that drivers must believe that accidents caused by driver inattention must happen to someone else.  Indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported a few years back that driver inattention is the leading factor in most accidents.

Driving is similar to many types of knowledge work that require great concentration.  You may not notice the impact, but multitasking when doing many types of knowledge work not only slows progress but can result in an inferior outcome.  NPR’s Morning Edition demonstrated the effect of multitasking on the brain by having a pianist play the piano and attempt to read a newspaper story at the same time.  You can hear the results here.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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