Ryan Hamilton
Goizueta professor Ryan Hamilton worked on a paper describing the negative aspects of switching between unrelated tasks. FILE PHOTO

Focusing on too many unrelated tasks in a day can drain self-control abilities, says a new study from a team of business professors including Goizueta’s Ryan Hamilton.

Hamilton, Kathleen Vohs (Minnesota), Anne-Laure Sellier (NYU), and Tom Meyvis (NYU) contend the brain can only switch between different styles of thinking so many times before it depletes the cognitive resources people need for self control. This can manifest itself in behaviors including emotional outbursts and cheating on diets.

The paper — “Being of two minds: Switching mindsets exhausts self-regulatory resources” — will appear in the May issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Hamilton says the problem isn’t just multi-tasking or trying to do too many things at once — long thought to be a tax on workplace sanity and source of grievances. Instead, problems can arise from doing one task at a time when those tasks require different mindsets or perspectives.

People should take care in grouping like tasks together and avoid refocusing attention.

Accountants, for example, have jobs that vary from long-range forecasting, which often entails an abstract perspective, to detail-oriented auditing, which is a more concrete task. Hamilton suggests separating the two as much as possible, preferably with a break in between.

The drop in self-regulation occurs when gears are disengaged from one-task and engaged on another, dissimilar goal.

“Our work suggests that if, during the course of a day, you are constantly having to switch back and forth between two perspectives it can be very depleting,” said Hamilton.

The researches ran five experiments with approximately 300 participants. Subjects were asked to complete tasks using different methods. Then their ability to self-regulate was measured.

Volunteers were asked to think abstractly about a topic, in more concrete/technical terms about a another or combine the two realms of thought. Afterwards they were offered a bitter-tasting drink and told of its health benefits. Those who switched between abstract and concrete thinking drank three-times less, a show of less self-control in stomaching the liquid.

In another experiment, bilingual subjects were asked to answer questions in a single language or switch between two. The group was then asked to perform a simple physical task: squeezing a hand grip for as long as they could. Those that answered in just one language were able to endure for twice as long as those that switched mindsets.

“We find that if you switch mindsets you are worse at self regulation,” Hamilton said.

According to Hamilton, the more a person switches mindsets the ability to make good decisions and manage emotions suffers.

The process of switching mindsets can be particularly taxing on small-business owners who “often wear multiple hats,” juggling accounts, making sales calls and managing employees in the same day.

“If you are poorly regulated you are less able to restrain whatever emotional things going on inside of you,” Hamilton said. “It makes you less able to endure tedious or uninteresting tasks so you can’t concentrate as well…

“From a business perspective, it’s probably easiest to say employers should care about this because it can influence the performance of their employees.”



Ryan Hamilton joined the Goizueta Business School faculty in 2008 after completing a PhD in marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. His research investigates consumer behavior, especially consumer judgment and decision making. His work has investigated the role of the visual structure of information in decision making and some of the factors that influence consumers’ choice among assortments. A recent stream of research investigates price image: how consumers decide whether a retailer or brand is, in general, high priced or low priced, and how these price images influence consumers’ choices. Professor Hamilton teaches courses in Marketing Management (MBA) and Consumer Behavior (PhD). He was awarded the MBA Teaching Excellence Award for Junior Faculty in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. In 2011, Professor Hamilton was named one of the World’s Best 40 B-School Profs Under the Age of 40.