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Is Multitasking Good or Bad?

Multitasking: Productivity Enhancer or Time Waster?

Can we really perform multiple tasks simultaneously? We all feel the pressure to accomplish more than one thing at once, but are we enhancing our productivity or wasting time? We, as professionals, increasingly have to get more done in less time. But, should multitasking be part of our approach?

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Multitasking and the Bad Effects: A Loss in Efficiency

Neurologic researchers identify “brown outs” in the brain during multitasking, a term associated with the loss of some of the brain’s computing power. This “brown out” condition leaves room for surface learning only, and increases the chances of mistakes. So, is multitasking good for the brain? From this standpoint, it doesn’t sound like it is.

I, like most of my peers, have my cell phone beside me so I can respond to texts while I am writing this blog article, simultaneously monitoring my four email addresses and periodically adding to a PowerPoint presentation for my next consulting assignment. I am passionate about what I do and, in living this passion, I am a moderate multitasker, surrounded by technologies. In fact, because I multitask regularly, I have reached a level of proficiency. Or have I?

It’s a fact - as we get busier we try to achieve more things simultaneously, often “flying by the seat of our pants” to get everything done. In reaction to this reality, combined with the alarmingly negative scientific findings on the human ability to multitask, state-wide laws have restricted cell phone use while driving. In fact, what is your first response when your phone signals you have a text message while you are driving home from work? As a fellow driver, I hope you are waiting until a stop light before reading that text.

Off the road, who doesn’t respond to an instant message while on a conference call? The compulsion to rapidly switch between posting on Facebook, tweeting and emailing your business colleagues is something most professionals feel is a requirement in order to be most effective in today’s fast-paced business environment. However, the more we function this way, the less productive we are. Research shows, as is evidenced in Fenella Saunder’s article in the American Scientist, those who juggle five or more functions at a time take the longest to switch between processes and, thus, are most inefficient.

Tools to Help with Multitasking

How can we as professionals work more efficiently and effectively? Web-based tools can help. Social media consolidators allow users to post one update and the service pushes it out to all social media accounts. Another tool includes what most big software firms tout as “unified communications,” the elusive cloud-based application where social media and business communication converge into a time-saving medium. This concept has yet to find a strong fan base.

Strategies to Change Habits and Multitask Productively

However helpful these tools above may be, they cannot enable maximum effectiveness and efficiency on their own. Day-to-day habits and behaviors have to change, as well. Tips for more effective and efficient multitasking performance on the job include:

1. Allow yourself “downtime” each day. A time of rest can help your brain process the input received during the day and synthesize it into actionable steps for tomorrow. Meditation is ideal for this restful downtime. Match this with a restful night’s sleep of at least five hours.

2. Reduce your anxiety levels and those of your team. Anxiety induces mistakes of both omission (forgetting to do a task) and commission (doing a task incorrectly). To lessen anxiety levels:

- Check for alignment and understanding using open-ended questions starting with “Do I understand correctly…?” and “What will your first step be….?”

- Clarify how the project fits into the big picture and field questions from your group.

- Look to the future, collaboratively mapping out what success looks like while creating an environment of collective ownership for success.

3. Follow a disciplined cycle of productivity. Renowned technologist Pierre Khawand, lecturer at UC Berkley’s Haas School of Business and founder of People-OnTheGo, suggests starting with forty minutes of focused project time with no interruptions to allow for rich ideation and concept maturation (most disturbing are the visual pop-ups and audio notifications of text messages). Follow this forty minutes with a similar time-period of collaboration, responding to calls, IM’s, emails and social media. In this way, if you have one hour between meetings, you can use this time productively to get a chunk of work done on your project and still respond to the real-time work environment before your next meeting.

4. Use the Urgent/Important matrix. Eisenhower is credited with the original quote, "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important." However, Stephen Covey popularized this time management concept through this matrix designed to help you prioritize and consciously decide how to spend your time wisely. Using this matrix, how would you score updating your Facebook page with what you ate for lunch? How would you score an email from your boss asking for action in the next hour?

Finally, I’ll share a humorous story that I heard from one of my webinar participants. Her colleague Jim was running a global team meeting with 35 participants, joining in from all across the world. His intention was to share slides over the Internet with the participants while also speaking over a conference bridge line for one hour in order to reach a decision on a project.

He started the meeting with a verbal introduction, then asked everyone to log into the website where he was hosting the meeting. After everyone was logistically situated, he proceeded to share his desktop mistakenly rather than just his PowerPoint presentation. While discussion ensued between the members of his team, Jim started two skype chats—a spicy chat with his girlfriend and another chat with a colleague —all while his team was discussing the matter Jim had placed before him. Unbeknownst to Jim, all 35 of the team members that logged onto the shared website could see every one of the somewhat racy chat boxes popping up on Jim’s window.

Multitasking can be a productivity enhancer with careful and attentive management, but if not managed well, it quickly works against us.

Regards,

Lynne Tarter, SPHR
Global Communicator

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