“Multi-tasking” at work is, was, and forever shall be a misnomer and a myth.
Why? Because your brain doesn’t — can’t — simultaneously process much work. It can (and does), however, rapidly switch between various work activities. When people insist that they are successful multi-taskers, look closer and you’ll see someone confusing activity with progress.
If your attention is constantly divided and you’re jumping from one unfinished task to the next, you may feel busy but you’re not productive. That feeling is important. Everyone wants to feel alive, connected, switched on, tuned in, recognised and interactive. That’s just being human and that’s the perceived buzz that multi-tasking gives you. But you don’t have to create a sense of constant crisis (a prime characteristic of multi-tasking) in order to feel fully human, fully alive. Artificial over-stimulation is not the path to self-fulfilment. But you knew that, right?
Dope and Dopey: myths of multi-tasking
Only tasks that are highly practiced or automatic (like talking on the phone or driving a car) can be performed simultaneously with other actions. Switching back and forth is necessary for everything else.
Research shows that employees engaging in multiple activities at once actually perform slower and less accurately with lower levels of productivity. You may think or feel that you’re on top of things but you can’t overcome your brain’s inherent limitations in processing information.
A study at Kings Psychiatry College in London, commissioned by Hewlett Packard, found that excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence and short-term memory. Employees distracted by email, text messages, phone calls and constant distractions suffered a 10-point fall in their IQ when tested after they were multi-tasking (ie, jumping between five and six different projects). And who among us has 10 IQ points to spare?
The researchers then examined the IQ drop of a test group after they smoked marijuana. The IQ of the group who smoked pot averaged a 5 point fall. So, evidently it’s more productive for your short-term IQ to smoke marijuana than to multi-task. (That’s a joke, folks.) The point is: IQ falls and you become ‘stupider’ and less productive when you either smoke pot or try to multi-task. One is dope the other is dopey, either way, you limit yourself.
The University of London psychologist who carried out the study, Dr Glenn Wilson, commented that “unchecked infomania reduces workers’ mental sharpness. Multi-tasking can be incredibly stressful on the brain; it impairs short-term memory and concentration. Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night’s sleep”. He could’ve added that loss of sleep is without doubt the best documented, fastest, surest way to make yourself stupid.
The IQ loss also turns out to be temporary. Remove multi-tasking from the picture, and test scores jump back to normal.
4 Ways to maintain your IQ and increased your productivity
There is a way out of multi-tasking mania and it requires an attitude adjustment for some people.
1 Finished > 10 Unfinished
One task completed is worth more than ten unfinished. That was one of my earliest management lessons. Americans call it ‘chunking’, ie, winnowing large tasks down to smaller segments than can be completed in a one-at-a-time sequence, or working on similar tasks together in such a manner. Australians call it focus or ‘keep yer bloody mind on the job!’ Either way, the point is: complete a large task in increments.
Eg., Write all your proposals together, lock out two hours to complete a project report, bunch together all your inner-city meetings on the same day afternoon, etc. Place a do-not-disturb sign on your office door or workstation if necessary. (Folks, this isn’t quantum mechanics; solutions are rather obvious, are they not?)
Work without interruption for a few hours. Here’s how: turn off your phone, get rid of the email pop-up alerts, refrain from checking emails, and work in a closed space or quiet room. In short, eliminate distractions. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Then, when you’re finished, bask in the warm inner glow of actual accomplishment.
For truly productive meetings turn off mobile phones, use tablets only if they have information relevant to the meeting, eliminate interruptions. This keeps meetings shorter, to the point, and thus more productive.
Basically, we’re talking about decision making. The eternal decision you must make continually is to determine what’s the most important or productive task you can do right now? That’s difficult to answer at times, especially since we live in a world of competing demands. Still, it’s the fundamental question every person has to ask themselves — and answer—every day that they are on this planet.
Think of it this way: the word ‘decide’ originates in the Latin word meaning “to cut off”. So taking a decision, establishing a priority, focusing on the task at hand, is really just cutting yourself off (even if temporarily) from other options. This is both logical and natural. After all, you can’t be here if you’re there. You can’t focus on this, if you’re focused on that. So bloody decide, will ya’? It’s truly that simple.