It's pretty well understood at this point that multitasking is a trap that we fall into as much as a tool we use. Psychology Today explains that countless studies have shown how people become dramatically less efficient and less reliable when they divide their attention.
But its just as obvious that we still insist on cramming as many different tasks into each second as we can, particularly in a field as hectic as recruiting can be. So maybe the best we can hope for is figuring out how best to multitask when people can't help themselves.
A new study from Ohio State University assistant professor of communication Zheng Wang suggests that there actually are different kinds of multitasking ... and people are much worse at some of them than others.
Texting versus talking
Wang's research certainly was not intended to look at head hunters making calls and sorting through emails, but rather hoped mainly to look into the difference between talking on the phone or texting behind the wheel. There has been a great deal of attention for the issue of texting with car crashes caused by mobile devices on the rise, with some people calling it more dangerous than drunk driving.
Many people, though, have been skeptical about the difference between driving while texting and driving while talking on the phone, which has drawn a few bans around the country but nowhere near the same media coverage.
Wang looked to test the difference by creating a scenario where students would be forced to perform the same task on a computer - a matching game that just requires players to click buttons based on whether two images are the same - while either talking or instant messaging a person directions. The idea was to split the study, with some people performing two visual tasks and others attempting two different types of tasks.
Looking without seeing
Unsurprisingly, Wang's results backed up the existing research, with a massive drop in performance as soon as people were asked to start multitasking.
But, as it turns out, when participants were forced to perform two different visual tasks at the same they saw an even more dramatic falloff - 50 percent - than when they could talk through their directions - 30 percent.
Eyetracking devices used in the study saw similar declines in attention to the primary task.
"They’re both dangerous, but as both our behavioral performance data and eyetracking data suggest, texting is more dangerous to do while driving than talking on a phone, which is not a surprise," Wang noted.
Perhaps more interestingly, people who were able to text actually felt more confident about their performance, which Wang attributed a greater feeling of control and efficiency, since people weren't being "distracted" by any sounds.
Learning to multitask … less inefficiently
These results should not give people any illusions about their ability to multitask. If you distract yourself by splitting your attention, you'll always be distracted and there's really nothing that can change that.
What it does suggest for head hunters is that if you are insistent about getting as much done as you can, at least you can try to structure your work so that the negative effects can be minimized. By finding different types of tasks that can realistically be performed at the same time, you could potentially speed through them without suffering quite as much loss in accuracy and reliability.
One good example might be weeding through resume while making fairly routine phone calls. Some people might think you could go as far as tacking on some added work to early phone interviews, but if you do then don't expect to be taking very reliable notes. Simply typing up notes while you talk is itself a visual task, and you should be careful about trying to treat distinct tasks as part of the same overall "process."
Focusing on different types of inputs might seem more disruptive than switching back and forth between tasks on the computer, and certainly requires a bit more planning, but could cause fewer problems in the long run.
At the same time, plenty of jobs really do call for effective multitasking, since many people just don't have as much time as they really need. Understanding that multitasking is really about finding jobs that complement each other well rather than cramming as many responsibilities into as little time gives you something to look for in recruiting candidates.