Multi-tasking: it's not all it's cracked up to be!

Kathy West - Manager 


Multi-tasking has been glorified in recent years as a desirable skill. Having the ability to get multiple things done at the same time - how could this be a bad thing? Almost everyone’s tried it (with varying levels of success) or even relies on it to cope with our busy careers and lives. Many of us work very hard to make multitasking a part of our everyday lives – attempting to keep all the balls in the air and move multiple projects forward simultaneously.

Currently science tells us that true multitasking – working/concentrating on two or more things at the same time - is not good for our brains. We’ve found that what many of us “call” multitasking – the quick switching between various tasks – is not really all it’s cracked up to be.

Many of us can’t avoid multiple projects and deliverables coming at us as at once or in quick succession and some of us are better at handling those demands – multitasking - than others.

David Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, and his research team believe that “there is a tiny persistent subset of the population – about two per cent – whose performance does not deteriorate, and can even improve, when multiple demands are placed on their attention” but two per cent is not the average person so what does that mean for the rest of the population?

Being able to keep multiple projects or tasks moving forward is an important and even necessary skill for many of us and it can even feel great, giving you a measurable emotional high but there is no question that it also has significant drawbacks if you don’t fall into that two per cent. Which means, if we can’t remove multitasking from our lives, we need to be cautious about how we handle it.

David Rock, co-founder NeuroLeadership Institute has discovered that multitasking “…reduces our intelligence, literally dropping our IQ. We make mistakes, miss subtle cues, fly of the handle when we shouldn’t, or spell things wrong.” This is a pretty high cost to pay – we try harder and harder to keep everything moving ahead but we are actually making ourselves stupid doing it - ouch!

What can we do – the work doesn’t end, the demands don’t letup, the phone doesn’t stop ringing, the emails and texts keep coming in. Your boss, your clients, and/or your family won’t be too thrilled if you just pick and choose what gets done, who gets an answer or solution and just let all the rest slide but we can’t risk impairing our brain function either.

We need to work on small ways to focus more – still keeping multiple items moving forward but as much as possible, avoiding the quick jumping from task to task, focusing more on just one thing at a time, even if it’s just for a short period of time.

If you can’t avoid times with multiple inputs and outputs then plan to do your creative tasks first. The more decisions you make through the day the more tired you will be and there won’t be anything left for creativity. It’s called decision fatigue:

“Each decision you make depletes your cognitive resources, making each future decision more difficult and can quickly exhaust you and make you feel run down” [Nataly Kogan, co-founder and CEO of “Happier”]

As much as possible, book off periods of focused time and be thoughtful of what you put into those hours taking into account when you focus best. Be realistic about how long and when those periods of time will work best for you and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t stay focused.

If you need to deal with a lot of little things, try to group them together so that you are multitasking but only for a short period of time and then switch over to a more focused block of time so that your whole day isn’t made up of multitasking. Work on re-training your brain. You’ve spent months and years telling your brain that it’s o.k. to jump from item to item, it will take time to get your focus back. Even small steps will mean improved brain function.

We’ve all heard that being organized helps us focus. Each of us works differently but when it’s time to work, try “organizing your environment so that your distractions lead you in productive directions (project-piles, reminder notes) rather than toward irrelevant (albeit fun or interesting) information.” [Naomi Kenner, Russell Poldrack “Scientific American - Portrait of a Multitasking Mind”]

Give yourself the tools and permission to be more focused and less distracted. Try turning off your devises and email, even for short periods of time. Train others around you to save up their demands on your time, interrupting when needed but less frequently. This will reduce some of the need for multitasking.

There is no cure or quick fix but small steps can lead to a reduction in the need for multitasking and an increase in focus, which means you won’t just be working smarter you will actually be making yourself smarter – now that’s a good thing!