Do you feel that you can multitask better than handling single tasks? Some research begs to disagree. A study from the University of California, Los Angeles, illustrated that multitasking impairs your ability to integrate new with old information. Research has been very consistent in highlighting that multitasking affects the efficiency, quality, and accuracy of the work done.
While introducing a second task appears to be a distraction, diving deeper into research shows that it may not always be the case. Some studies show that task-irrelevant background sound interferes with the processing of task demands, while others illustrate that it can help your work by improving your mood and motivation. What we have found is that it all depends on the type of sound. For example, does working while listening to music in the background count as multitasking? The simple answer is yes, and depending on what you are listening to it can either enhance or distract from your solo-tasking focus.
On the other hand, disruptive noise causes a solo-tasker to multitask, because their nervous system is trying to filter it out. Most people are unconscious this is occurring, but it does have a strong, negative impact.
Whether background music and sound enhance your multitasking ability is not an easy question to answer. However, the conclusion is that background sound can have both positive and negative effects on multitasking.
When Can Background Sound Help You Multitask?
Background sound, especially white noise like the humming of an air conditioner, can help you complete tasks depending on the nature of your work. Here are ways background sound can help.
Motivation & Creative Flow
Music can give you a motivational spark before you start working on cognitive tasks that require creativity. Motivation comes from the action of neurotransmitters in the brain sending chemical messages to keep you on task and alert. Music without lyrics or a lot of variability often helps sustain creative flow for many individuals while most other music can be jarring and disruptive when trying to focus.
Background sound such as music without lyrics has been found to promote neuroplasticity by increasing the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and neural firing. Dopamine plays an instrumental role in cognitive, behavioral, and emotional functioning.
Dopamine works before rewards. Background sound creates an environment for dopamine spike even as you anticipate rewards on completing tasks, enhancing your productivity. Your brain feeds off the dopamine bursts and communicates to the rest of your body, boosting your mood and motivation.
Low dopamine levels make people less motivated. Up-tempo music is recommended for studying, working, and handling tasks that require concentration.
Enhanced Productivity on Repetitive Tasks
Music can enhance productivity when multitasking repetitive work. Several studies have illustrated the correlation between music and repetitive tasks and showed that it enhances efficiency.
Complex and upbeat music can keep you motivated by making repetitive tasks that do not necessarily require mental concentration more pleasurable and less mind-numbing. When doing repetitive tasks in assembly lines and quality control, your attention will fade with time. Introducing background sound periodically can increase alertness.
Elimination of Distractions and Maximizing Focus
It may surprise you that certain types of background sound can eliminate distraction and maximize concentration. However, not all types of background sound can have that effect. White noise can help you control your work environment and increase efficiency despite the surrounding distractions.
White noise such as a whirring fan, television static, or a humming air conditioner blocks other disturbing sounds and boosts your focus and creativity. It can also bring relaxation when handling hectic tasks.
Having the right background sound before and during work can enhance efficiency as it makes tasks more pleasurable and boosts attention.
Negative Effects Of Background Sound On Completing Tasks
Have you ever found yourself desperately trying to focus in the office or coffee shop, but it is impossible due to the chatter in the background? When it comes to focusing, quiet is golden, and the impact of background noise impacts the ability to concentrate.
Increased Stress Levels
Multitasking by itself can create stress due to the added pressure of switching back and forth from one task to the next. As a result, the brain takes more time to handle multiple tasks than it normally would.
Unwanted background sound triggers the amygdala, which activates the release of the stress hormone cortisol. When multitasking, prolonged exposure to background noise in your workspace can trigger physiological stress that is similar to other physical stressors.
Reactivity to noise-induced stress negatively affects memory, problem-solving abilities, and motivation. Exposure to ambient noise when working is a form of unconscious multitasking that can also lead to increased stress levels. This can worsen stress-related conditions such as migraine headaches, peptic ulcers, and high blood pressure.
The brain responds to impossible demands such as handling multiple tasks while at the same time trying to ignore the noise of people laughing loudly or sirens in the background. This results in stress hormones and adrenaline bursts that affect your health and make concentration even harder.
The steady flow of these hormones can put you on edge and strain your body, resulting in adrenal fatigue, making it extremely challenging for you to work at all.
Fatigue is a very familiar complaint at the workplace. A survey was conducted to determine the impact of noise on fatigue in the workplace. The results illustrated that there were increased levels of headache and fatigue among the group with prolonged exposure to disruptive noise.
While most people would figure fatigue is derived from work-related tasks, the physical environment also contributes to fatigue.
There are several ways that background noise can cause fatigue when multitasking. For instance, multitasking has been found to trigger an increase in the production of adrenaline and cortisol. The background sound and noise further trigger the production of the hormones leading to overstimulation of the nervous system.
Overstimulation manifests itself in physical and mental tension, followed by exhaustion and fatigue due to overworking the nervous system. Working when tired results in poor execution of tasks due to low energy levels, motivation, and difficulty in concentration.
The monotony of certain background sounds has a sleep-inducing effect and makes tasks more tiring and difficult than they already are.
Decreased Productivity and Motivation
Distraction lowers productivity and energy because your nervous system is unconsciously handling multiple tasks. Background noise impairs your ability to focus on multiple projects long enough to complete them successfully. Research done by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear found that 30% of workers in cubicles and 25% of workers in open-plan offices were dissatisfied with the noise levels at their workplace and had difficulty concentrating.
A considerable percentage of workers are unproductive, stressed, and unable to work constructively and creatively due to noise distraction in the workplace. When exposed to distractions such as colleagues chatting nearby, your productivity can dwindle by more than 50%.
Disruptive background sound is a productivity killer, especially when you are attempting to focus. Unwanted sound creates periods of distraction where the brain pauses to assess if there are other things to focus on or identify ways to control the environment. Not only is a lot of productive time lost during the pauses and re-focusing, but the distractions can also alter the ability of your brain to concentrate.
The distractions also create hyper-alert situations, which trigger the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, making multitasking more challenging. Workers are less likely to concentrate on complex tasks when exposed to background sounds like sirens, loud banging, or screeches.
Some of the behavioral effects seen are the lack of motivation to attempt to complete tasks and increased distraction when handling repetitive tasks. It is especially more difficult to integrate old and new tasks when distracted by background sounds.
Draining Working Memory and Cognitive Abilities
Working memory is a crucial element for any job. Cognitive abilities such as fluid intelligence and speed are also critical to completing tasks.
When your brain is handling a task, the prefrontal cortex is activated, and when working, the left and right sides work in sequence. However, when multitasking, the right and left prefrontal cortex try to work independently but can only switch back and forth inefficiently.
In this case, a worker does not handle two tasks simultaneously; instead, they switch between them. As they multitask, the switch may take microseconds which with the time of handling two tasks adds up to minutes. As a result, a worker may take up to 40% longer to complete the tasks compared to when handled separately as a series of solo tasks.
Additionally, multitasking often drains your working memory and cognitive abilities. With reduced fluid intelligence, attention, and speed, you are prone to making mistakes, and the tasks will not be handled with the accuracy required.
Two tasks already greatly load your working memory and cognitive abilities. Adding a third task, such as trying to manage disruptive background sounds, will more rapidly drain your energy reserves than solo-tasking.
Eliminating background noise is rarely thought of as an option, yet it can reduce the strain on your working memory, resulting in the quality delivery of tasks as your cognitive abilities will be optimized.
Optimizing Sound Quality to Improve Performance
Background sounds can be very distracting and, if left uncontrolled, can negatively impact productivity and motivation at the workplace, especially when attempting to focus. Unwanted noise is also a health concern as studies have found it to trigger stress and aggravate underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure.
Solo-tasking is a valuable skill in the workplace as workers and managers face an influx of duties and tasks that need to be done accurately and efficiently. Improving the office working environment will go a long way in improving the ability of teams to work for maximum productivity and success.
Background sound can impede the ability of workers to handle tasks and should be eliminated. Eliminating distractions is one of the most efficient ways to optimize the workplace.
People perform better when unwanted ambient noise is suppressed and sound that can boost motivation and productivity is introduced. While some of the sources of unwanted background noise, such as workers’ voices, music, and ringtones, can be controlled through noise reduction policies, others, such as nearby construction and traffic, require more sophisticated remedies.
Soundproofing walls and ceilings effectively reduce noise and enhance sound quality within an office and work environment. Acoustic panels eliminate echo and reduce and control noise by absorbing sound, especially by absorbing the noise of people talking and working in an open office. Our team would be happy to help you find the optimal solution for enhancing the sound quality of your workspace.
At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.
Miller T, Chen S, Lee WW, Sussman ES. Multitasking: Effects of processing multiple auditory feature patterns. Psychophysiology. 2015 Sep;52(9):1140-8. doi: 10.1111/psyp.12446. Epub 2015 May 4. PMID: 25939456; PMCID: PMC4946337.
Gopher, D., Armony, L. & Greenspan, Y. (2000). Switching tasks and attention policies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 308-229.