21 November 2014

Multi-tasking is more damaging than smoking dope!

There’s a common belief that women are better at multi-tasking than guys. It’s only partly true. In reality, if we try to do more than one thing at a time neither gender is effective at reasonably complex tasks that require concentrated brain power.

Here’s an example of effective multi-tasking:Flowers from this morning's walk Nov 2014

I went for a run this morning – one of my preferred methods of keeping reasonably fit. It was a clear-sky warm spring morning. The country air was fresh and wholesome, the birds were chirping, a couple of dogs barked and a few early workers zipped by in their cars with neighbourly waves.

At the point of turn-around I spotted a pretty patch of purple wild flowers so stopped to pick a small bunch. Nearby were some wild white daisies and then, still in flower-picking mode, I gathered a few seed heads of grass and flowers of wild parsley (at least, I think it’s wild parsley but in case it’s hemlock I’ve washed my hands well!)

Feeling virtuous about my no-cost floral arrangement and holding the flowers downwards to minimise bumping, I got back into my (slow) running stride. About 200 metres further my eye landed on an empty beer can and discarded pizza box. Picking up litter when I can is one of my community values so, knowing there was an appropriate drop off place 50 metres along the road, I did the right thing.

And there was one more activity – as I ran I rehearsed some French verbs (I’ve been learning French for over 2 ½ years now).  It was a great distraction factor – the power poles seemed to go past much faster!

So, in one 40 minute time-slot there was exercise, appreciation of the joys of spring, neighbourly contact, French homework, a simple and informal addition to the beauty of my home and a contribution to the community environment.

I guess I was multi-tasking but the only real brain power used was in rehearsing the French verbs. The whole episode felt both effective and rewarding.

Now here’s an example of ineffective multi-tasking:

Bill was at his desk in his open plan office. He was part-way through a report for the boss when one of his colleagues came up. ‘My computer’s having a bad hair day. You’re good at this stuff. Can I borrow you for a couple of minutes?’

Sighing, Bill got up and went to help. 5 minutes later, as he sat back down at his desk, an email notifier flashed across his screen. He took a quick look – Marketing wanted some figures for an urgent press release. So he attended to that.

Forty-five minutes later he finally got back to his report but he’d lost the flow: it took him ages to get back into action.

That pattern is experienced by many people every day, all day long. Do we wonder why so many people go home frustrated with the volume of activity they’ve achieved?

Many of the tasks modern office workers do are attempted from a multi-tasking perspective – and it’s NOT efficient.

As we dodge from task to task we’re engaging in a process called “context switching.” The outcome of this is that it’s harder to stay focused and harder to think deeply. We skip across the surface of many different pieces of information and many different tasks but achieve no great depth in any one.

If we’re desperately trying to deal with more input than we can possibly handle, the brain and body get locked into a circle where the brain’s frontal lobes lose their sophistication.  We get black and white thinking and start to lose perspective and the ability to see possible nuances and variations. We struggle to stay organised, to set priorities and to manage our time. We have a constant low level feeling of panic and guilt.

David Meyer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, a leading expert on how we focus, is convinced that chronic long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking to our health.

In 2007 Dr Gwen Wilson at the University of London compared a group who worked in a distracted environment to one that didn’t. The distracted group’s IQ dropped by 10 points compared to the non-distracted group. To put that into context she then compared it with research that’s been done around smoking marijuana. A lot of research over a long period of time indicates it’s not good for us; it kills brain cells and drops our IQ. The question is, how much? The fascinating thing is – it is only 4 points.

Solution – not to take up smoking dope! Rather, be very vigilant on reducing interruptions and distractions, often masquerading as multi-tasking.

If you’re struggling with any of these issues and would like help, you might get value from one-on-one coaching. I take only 6 people at a time. If you’d like to be considered for a slot, just drop me a line at [email protected] . You’ll find more about my coaching process at  www.gettingagrip.com/personal-coaching/

3 thoughts on “Multi-tasking is more damaging than smoking dope!”

  1. Peter says:

    Robyn Hi,

    Thankyou for this article,we have been trying to understand this
    issue that happens a lot at work.

    It is clearer now,we have some ideas we will now try out.



  2. Diane Lithgow says:

    My whole working day is just like Bill’s. I have a boss that every new job is the most important job and then he takes forever to get it back to me. tells me constantly that deadlines are here but does not stick to them. I try my best to switch to his most important task but sometimes feel left hanging and not achieving anything.
    PS I know I am the PA but its not conducive to a great work life.

  3. Julie says:

    Thank you for this post, Robyn. This strikes a chord with me. As a single mum with a demanding (though part-time) job, I spend a lot of time feeling pulled in all directions and dealing with interruptions. Due to feeling constantly overwhelmed I started seeing a counsellor recently who also advised me that multi-tasking is one of the biggest causes of stress. I am only just starting to realise the impact constant interruptions are having on my work as I never seem to get round to the bigger, more important things, which end up looming ever-larger as more time goes by until they are bearing down on me like a tidal wave! I have vowed to have some time each day where the door to my office is closed and the email turned off and hope this will help.

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