Monday, September 26, 2011

Multitasking - Friend or Foe?

Given the workplace of today, we are all guilty of trying to get too much done each day.  We over pack our schedules in an effort to 'keep up' and we use technology as a tool to help us keep track of if not complete, multiple tasks simultaneously.  Who hasn't been guilty of reading an email or text message from one person while speaking to another?  When accused of not listening or paying attention we confidently assure them we are, that we are simply multitasking and can pay equal attention to both activities simultaneously.

Our ability to multitask successfully is much lauded and sought after during recruitment.  However, as it turns out, there is a very narrow window of activities that allow us to truly multitask.  In fact, two key conditions must be met for us to multitask, to truly engage in two separate activities simultaneously...
  1. one of the activities must be so ingrained, so well learned, that it is now automatic and habitual.  This means that there is no conscious thought required for you to engage in the task (think walking or eating here)
  2. that the activities you are looking to engage in use completely different types of brain processing.  For example, you can read and listen to instrumental music because they involve different parts of the brain.  However, your comprehension and retention of information you're reading drops significantly if you read while listening to music with lyrics.  As soon as the lyrics are added you are asking the same part of the brain (language center) to attend to two different sources of information simultaneously... and it can't.
As soon as our multiple activities stimulate and require the same brain area or function, we are no longer Multitasking, but 'Serial' Tasking.  Our brain continually shifts from one task to the other, in very rapid succession.  As much as this might seem like a significant difference, research is now showing us that there is a high price to be paid in productivity for Serial Tasking. It seems that, despite how it feels, our brains are not able to shift smoothly and seamlessly from one task to another.  There is a lag time in which our brains detach from the current task and attach to the new task.  If we are constantly shifting from one to another, this can add a significant amount of time (up to 40%) on completion time, versus single tasking.

  • in studies testing multitasking capabilities, those who rated themselves as chronic multitaskers actually made more mistakes, cold remember fewer items and took longer to complete single-focused tasks than those who rated themselves as infrequent multitaskers.
  • other studies have definitively shown that children perform worse on their homework if it done while watching TV (thank god my mother never saw this but then, my children didn't appreciate the fact I had!)
  • and again, research shows that employees are more productive when they don't check their email frequently
I know that when I have a new program that I am writing, I will pack up cases of my research notes, a million and one sticky notes, flipcharts and markers and head to the cottage for a couple of weeks.  Minimizing my distractions and immersing myself in the subject truly allows me to gain greater clarity, finish faster and develop a far superior product than had I stayed back at the office fielding calls and interruptions.

I know that this isn't an option available at all times though, so what are we to do when life seems to scream at us to multitask all of the time?

  1. recognise that life is rarely asking us to multitask.  Instead, it is simply coming at us with simultaneous demands.  Rarely do our task have to be accomplished simultaneously, they simply have to be done by the same time.  Staging our activities in a priority order truly helps us in single tasking more efficiently.  Maintaining our focus on one activity, for a set period of time, can help us accomplish it faster.  At the end of the day we just need our list completed.  How we have managed that is less important.
  2. although we can't pick up and head to the cottage to work every day, we can block out moments in our day that help us to really focus and concentrate on an important task.  Close the office door or move to a meeting room, shut off the phone, the blackberry, turn off the message received notification on your computer.  In order words... minimize all potential interruptions and distractions.
  3. consider making some changes on an ongoing basis that do the same.  Turn your desk so that you do not face directly out of the door.  This prevents you from seeing movement going past your door that draws the eye and breaks focus.  Turn off the message receipt sound to your email and only answer it at scheduled points during your day. (same with other devices!) 
  4. when focusing on a task schedule a set amount of time during your day for working on it.  Just the fact that you know you have 30 minutes set aside for a task allows you to feel comfortable spending the time needed on it, rather than feeling guilty about the time it takes.  This helps you to relax into the activity and not have part of your brain focused on how long it is taking and reminding you of everything else waiting for you. 
When we have so many things, and people, screaming for our attention throughout the day, we may find that the key lies not in learning to multitask better, but in simply learning to focus on one thing at a time better!  Breaking away from the myth of multitasking may prove to be the biggest productivity booster that you have implemented yet!

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