Executive Insights | November 2010 | By Robin Van Tan

The iProblem

While gadgets like the iPad and iPhone can be effective communication tools, experts say the multitasking habits they create can be harmful. 

The iPad and other technology tools can create problematic multitasking habits f
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Send Paul Damico an e-mail between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and chances are he’ll respond within minutes, no matter where he is.

The CEO of Moe’s Southwest Grill prides himself on his responsiveness and keeps his inbox as empty as possible—a task that’s been a lot easier since the 16-gigabyte iPad was delivered to his office April 3, the day it hit the market. Now the device never leaves his side.

“The minute I leave my office to go to a meeting, I take my iPad with me,” he says. “And even though I have a desktop computer at home, I rarely use that because I have my iPad wherever I go in the house.”

Damico says he logs about six hours a day on his iPad. He spends another three hours talking on his iPhone.

“The iPad has made my life easier,” he says. “You’re getting so much more information in the same amount of time.”

But a growing body of research suggests that the very gadgets Damico and countless other CEOs purchase in the name of increasing productivity might not be as helpful as they think they are. 

System Overload

One of the main reasons experts say high-tech gadgets hurt productivity is that they increase multitasking.

“A lot of the programs alert you when they have an update or when you get a new message,” says Marc Berman, a University of Michigan cognitive neuroscientist. “It’s as if you were in the middle of working on something and I tapped you on the shoulder, interrupting you.”

Studies show that people who say they’re good multitaskers are actually worse at it than people who make no such claim.

“You’d think the people who are multitasking the most would be better at it, but they’re not,” Berman says. “Which just shows that humans aren’t really such good multitaskers.”

The process takes a mental toll, and research suggests focusing on one thing for a certain period of time is the more effective work strategy. 

“If you’re doing something that doesn’t require much thinking, multitasking is probably fine,” says Peggy Duncan, a personal productivity expert and consultant. “But if you’re doing something that requires focus, it’s not. I’ve seen studies that show it can take eight or nine minutes for you to regroup and get back to the level of focus you were at after you’ve interrupted it to do something else.” 

Breaking Point

In addition to encouraging multitasking, the latest gadgets have also produced constant exposure to various stimuli.

“It used to be if you took an elevator ride, you would just stand in the elevator,” says Loren Frank, an assistant professor at the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco. “But now you could be checking your e-mail or making a phone call or watching a TV screen in the elevator. … Digital devices make it easier to be doing things and processing stuff all the time.”

For time-strapped CEOs, that might seem like a good thing. But a recent study conducted by Frank’s lab suggests that downtime might be essential for more than just recharging.

“When animals are exploring a new place and learning about something, they naturally look around and explore, and then they pause,” he says. “One might have thought that during those pauses not much is going on in their brains. But actually their brains seem to be replaying memories that they’ve seen recently or even in the more distant past. The suggestion is that these moments of downtime are allowing the brain to process the information.”

Initial data suggests that interrupting those moments of downtime could result in a learning deficit. If human brains work similarly, those moments of downtime could be necessary to fully learn and retain new information.

And even though turning away from the computer screen to another device might feel like taking a break, it isn’t.

“Watching TV and talking on the phone seem kind of passive and restful, but they’re actually quite taxing,” Berman says. “People who do those activities report feeling more anxious and irritable than they did beforehand.”

“It can take eight or nine minutes for you to regroup and get back to the level of focus you were at after you’ve interrupted it to do something else.”

In other words, executives could be unintentionally depriving themselves of the comprehension-boosting benefits of downtime.

“When you’re actively engaged and thinking about one thing, it’s probably the case that your brain isn’t doing this memory replay,” Frank says. “Short periods of time when you’re not actively engaged in anything at all are probably worthwhile.”

Duncan says that the consequences of being constantly tuned into technology go beyond the individual level; they could have a negative impact on employees’ habits and productivity as well.

“The CEO sets the tone,” she says, “so you need to lead by example. The smarter you work, the smarter everybody else is going to work. Don’t develop a culture of chaos.”

The iPad Debate

Despite any potential drawbacks, Moe’s CEO Damico still swears by his iPad, whether he’s using it at home to answer e-mails or in a meeting for impromptu research.

“If there’s a question or an issue that can be resolved with data, then you just look it up on the iPad during a meeting,” he says. “That may save a follow-up e-mail or call, or even an entire meeting that would have had to happen later.”

While he says he feels more productive since getting his iPad, Damico says there’s potential for it creating a distracted corporate culture.

“I could see a situation where there’s a staff meeting of 12 people with iPads, and at any given time 60 percent of the group might not be paying attention to something that’s important because they’re clicking around on it,” he says. “That could become a major distraction.”

Of course, eliminating gadgets or unplugging in the name of productivity is easier said than done. The key, Duncan says, isn’t abandoning digital devices—it’s abandoning the belief that those gadgets will magically transform unproductive practices.

“If you have poor work habits before the technology, the technology will just make it worse,” she says. “To really benefit, you have to rework your habits and then look at how different programs or utilities can help to further streamline them.”