Multi-Tasking Ourselves to Lower Performance

Early in my career, I learned that employers have particular preferences for prospective employees. Resume-writing gurus and job placement organizations shared these “best-in-class” attributes. These include the famous:

  • team player
  • ability to work without supervision
  • hard working
  • diligent
  • conscientious
  • attention to detail
  • ability to multi-task
  • good communicator

Looking at it now, of course that would be attractive. 

“What?  You can do the work of two people and handle lots of competing priorities and juggle lots of tasks? And you don’t need to take breaks?”  (Cue the ethereal music and rays of sun streaming through the heavens.)

The thought is that doing it all at the same time gets better results. That is not the case.  We’ve all seen the memes and videos of people texting while walking and falling into a fountain or into another person or object.  This flawed thinking has individuals striving to achieve the unachievable.

A study from the University of London found the reverse to be true.  The study finds that constant emailing and text messaging reduces mental capability by an average of 10 points on an IQ test (5 pts for women/15 pts for men). The effect is like missing a night’s sleep.

I took a recent class on how the brain works.   It was fascinating.   It reinforced the physiology of the brain and brain function.  Dr. David Rock shares the brain’s limitations in his book, Your Brain at Work:

  • You can hold several chunks of information in mind at once, but you can’t perform more than one conscious process at a time without impacting performance.   
  • While it is possible sometimes to do several mental tasks at once, accuracy and performance drop off quickly.
  • If accuracy is important, don’t divide your attention.

Other findings and studies over the past 30 years lead to the same conclusions.  No matter how much information we try to hold, we can actually only do one thing at a time.  This challenges the whole notion of “multi-tasking”. 

Embedded behaviors that take little cognitive function are the exception.  Think about eating, for example.  We’re often able to have a conversation while we’re eating unless it requires some added level of alertness.  If I’m asked in the conversation to do math, it’s a put down my fork moment. 

It’s clear then that what we can do is “multi-think” but not multi-task”.  We can think about a lot of things, but doing it is a one-at-a-time thing.   

Lately, I am hearing a lot about “task switching”.  “I’m not multi-tasking, I’m task switching.”  This is the movement back and forth from one task to another.  Let’s take a minute to focus on thinking and task switching. 

  • As you seek to get work done, your brain jumps through a series of steps.  Dr. Rock identifies these as understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, and inhibiting.  It is a series of sorting and sifting through information to keep the right items in the forefront to execute the task. 
  • When it comes to task switching, then, neither topic gets full attention for the whole time.  The result: we miss key points or are unable to thoroughly process the information received.  In a nutshell, we use a lot of energy to remember less, have the propensity to miss details, and make more mistakes.   

A newer phenomenon, continuous partial attention, compounds these results. Linda Stone, former VP at Microsoft, coined the phrase. Continuous partial attention is the act of keeping a top-level item in focus while constantly scanning the periphery in case something more important emerges. 

  1. Here’s how it looks in the workplace.  You have an email pop up that notifies you of incoming messages.  Your phone sits next to you alerting you of text, email, and news. Always ready and waiting for the boss, the issue, or an urgency to demand your attention.  It might be that it’s not urgent but is something more interesting than what you’re doing.  It’s like speaking with someone at an event who is always looking over your head or shoulder to find the next better prospect. 

Ms. Stone observes, “The always on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace era has created and artificial sense of constant crisis.”  This constant state of alert adds to the stress and exhaustion you feel at the end of the day. 

Between multi-tasking, multi-thinking, and continuous partial attention, we limit the ability to achieve top performance.  In fact, we sabotage our ability to shine while experiencing higher levels of stress. 

Where do we go from here?  Changing the mindset and belief that these behaviors are good or productive is the first step.  Once done, here are some ideas to prompt positive change:

Plan and prioritize

  1. Slow down and create a plan
  2. Create your task list
  3. Set a prioritization system, e.g., urgency level, sequential A-B-C/1-2-3,  
  4. Handle priorities first
  5. Resist temptations to work out of order

Eliminate distractions

    1. Plan to be present – consider environment, alertness, etc.
    2. Close your door when working on a project
    3. Create time blocks for answering emails
    4. Put your phone to bed in another room (check out phone beds, it’s a real thing)

Use a tool or resource to help you focus on one thing at a time

    1. Add calendar time blocks dedicated to work on something specific
    2. Implement the Pomodoro Technique – this is a 25-minute work session followed by a 5-minute break (also helps battle procrastination)

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