The Hazards of Multi-Tasking

A girlfriend of mine sent me this article today and I couldn’t help but find it incredibly telling to the life that I’ve been living for…. gosh…. 9mos now?

What was I doing?  Oh yes…Multitasking.

The result of trying to juggle elephants is that no one, including yourself, is thrilled with the performance.

Multitasking is one of the most overused and misunderstood practices in the workplace today. It is often touted as what helps people get more done with less. People flaunt the ability to multitask as a skill… when it actually can be detrimental to getting tasks done well-or done at all.

Consider some of the following insights (and don’t answer your phone or check your e mail while reading them):

* There is no such thing as dividing attention between two conscious

activities. Under certain conditions we can be consciously aware of two things at the same time, but we never make two conscious decisions at the same time. Try carrying on a conversation with your dinner guests while trying to figure the tip on the bill. (From Why We Make Mistakes, by Joseph T. Hallinan).

* The term multitasking actually originated from the computer world, describing how a computer can split its work into multiple processes. Even a computer slows down its rate of work unless it has multiple processors. For us multiple processors would be multiple brains. Interestingly enough, if you give a computer too many tasks, it starts “thrashing,” which basically means it spends an overwhelming amount of time just trying to figure out how to deal with the requests-not actually completing them.

Sound familiar?

* A group of researchers from Stanford University made the following observation after a study on multitasking: People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time. Eyal Ophir, one of the authors of the research, also said, They[subjects in study] couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing. The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.

* The Air Force contributes a significant number of crashes of its aircraft to “task saturation.”  The term is also used in much of aviation to describe “stress-based paralysis caused by too many tasks to complete at one time.”

Getting the picture yet? Multitasking may sound like an effective way to completing our mountain of tasks at work, but the end result is frequently wasting time and energy jumping from one item to the next and inhibiting our ability to really focus on completing tasks well. So what’s the solution? Cut off a third of your to-do list? Tell your boss to stop giving you so much work to do? Maybe not.

Here are a few thoughts to get you moving in the right direction:

* Remove distractions. Any external stimulus (e mail notification, person passing by, papers/information in close eye view) invites our brains to ask, “Should I be focusing on that?” Remove the potential sources of distraction-or move yourself away from the distractions when possible.

* Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize. There are literally a hundred potential tasks you COULD work on at any moment. Prioritizing gives your brain a structure to manage the tasks more efficiently and filter out the less important ones.

* Write things down. This one is as old as time itself, but you know the value of it. Getting things out of our head and onto paper (or into a computer program) frees our mind to more efficiently focus on the most important task of the moment.

* Create buffers of time. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in an hour or day. Allow time for interruptions and crises in your plan.

* Demand completion of a task before attempting another one. With so much electronic and real-time communication vying for our attention and getting us off task, force yourself to finish a task before switching to an e mail, voice mail or even a conversation with someone. Your deep, focused attention to a task is the best hope to complete it well.

In his book, Hallinan gives another condition caused by multitasking:

Inattentional blindness. He writes, When people have their attention divided [i.e. multitasking], it is possible for a person to look directly at something and still not see it (page 81). Perhaps this is the most negative result of multitasking-in our struggle to get it ALL done, we are missing things that really NEED to be done-or done well.

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