Multi-tasking is a Myth: Focus!

Multi-tasking is a Myth: Focus!

July 2, 2015

You know how it is. You’re in a meeting and somebody is quietly tapping away on their cellphone. “Don’t worry, I’m listening! I just need to send this quick response to a client!” Or maybe you’re trying to post on LinkedIn while listening to a webinar. Let’s not even get started on texting and driving.

Here’s the reality:  We think we can do many things at once – and sometimes we’re expected to – but we simply can’t.

We’re not designed that way and no amount of experience lugging laptops and iPhones everywhere we go can change that.

It turns out, as research reported in Forbes shows, “When you try to multitask, in the short-term it doubles the amount of time it takes to do a task and it usually at least doubles the number of mistakes.” What’s more, it retrains the brain to think differently and with less focus. It’s actually been proven difficult or impossible to switch back to a more concentrated way of thinking. In an NPR interview, Stanford professor, Clifford Nass doesn’t mince words, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And even – they’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want to be a mental wreck.

Problem is, many workplace cultures require that everyone juggle incoming demands and long-range projects at the same time. I’m guilty of this kind of thinking, too. Somehow, email seems to take top priority no matter what we’re doing. If we don’t get an instant response to an email, we wonder, “Didn’t they get my email??,” as if the recipient couldn’t possibly be doing anything else. I actually had a colleague who would send an email, then walk down the hall and ask “Did you get my email?”

Dana Wilke reports on the costs of these conflicting demands in a recent SHRM article. Daily interruptions can “rob employees of three to five hours every workday.” Three to five hours… Admittedly, some of the distractions cited in the article are purely individual or social (gossip, texting, etcetera), but some are distractions born of the need to handle multiple incoming demands, often to the detriment of the primary job at hand. Email accounts for 31% of distractions. Co-workers dropping by 27%. It takes time to switch gears between the two demands and to recover from an interruption. And the quality of our work goes down when we try to manage them simultaneously.

So as curators of company cultures, what can we do to keep everyone focused? We can:

  • Create work spaces for employees, where there is somewhere to work and concentrate on one project at a time.
  • Be sure that senior leaders understand that the cost of sidetracking employees – even briefly – extends much further into quality and lost time. And a request from a leader will almost certainly take priority over other tasks.
  • Set reasonable response expectations for customer-facing employees to help them keep their priorities clear. Attend the meeting or answer the client right this minute? One of them is better for your business.
  • Set an example by leaving the smartphone behind and by not pressuring employees for rapid responses for non-urgent requests.

Technology is speeding up, expectations for rapid responses are on the rise, but evolution keeps us from moving just as quickly. Be sure that your team has the time and opportunity to focus on the task at hand.

Previously published on LinkedIn.