As I climbed the ranks at work, I was required to attend more and more (and more and more) meetings. I found myself gloating over the fact that I was an awesome multi-tasker. These meetings were not going to slow me down. I was still going to get just as much done in a day. In my mind, as my multi-tasking addiction grew, I was fully engaged and whoaing my colleagues with my meeting brilliance while also, responding to emails and working on reports blissfully and acurately.
In reality, however, as my screen glowed, my calendars dinged, and texts and emails buzzed, I was
becoming a bit distracted by the constant chatter of that silly meeting. I would even get a bit annoyed by the constant engagement I needed to portray, as this meant I had pull myself away from my digital world. I found myself nodding and saying, “uh huh”, in that way that sounds like I’m really listening but absolutely not. But damn, I was getting stuff done! Multi-tasking felt awesome.
But it wasn’t. In truth, I found my desire to attend meetings dwindling. There wasn’t the same engagement level – by me or my colleagues (we were all multi-taskers). Dialogs moved to monologues backed by the sound of keyboard tapping and iPhones dinging. I found the work I did during the meeting (AKA – my multi-tasking projects) was not up to par with the work I did outside of
the meetings. My emails lacked details, occasionally they lacked correct grammar, or I’d forget to attach documents and need to send another one with an apology for my lack of detail.
Although many of us multitask, and overwhelmingly, our society celebrates our multi-tasking behaviors,
we humans aren’t very good at it. And, according to brain experts, it’s something that we won’t get better at regardless of how often we try. When it comes to listening to my podcasts while going for a run – experts say, this type of multitasking is efficient and productive because we are using unrelated mental and physical resources for the two tasks (Chow, 2013). Additionally, running is something I don’t have to think about. Once I moved past toddlerhood, running is habitual. I don’t think about how to run while I run – I just run.
When we ask the brain to do two or more less habitual and more complicated tasks that require more brain engagement, we see performance and productivity drop (Chow, 2013). If I’m in a meeting where my brain is being asked to listen, process, problem-solve, and produce while I’m reading and responding to emails that require me to read, process, problem-solve, and respond, my brain will have to do one thing or the other. We simply can’t focus fully on more than one thing at a time. We will slow down, start making mistakes, lose track, etc. If you’re anything like me – you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Personal Multi-Tasking Failures Include (but are not limited to):
- Pretending to talk to my husband and/or child while responding to an email
- Trying to problem-solve my iPhone connectivity issue while driving
- Drafting an email while speaking on the phone
- Looking at directions on my phone while walking and talking
So what do we do with this knowledge. Unless we are superhuman, we are actually getting less done even though we believe we are getting it all done. That seems like a great place to start – Awareness and acceptance of that truth. I may need a support group for this!
According to Julie Morgenstern, a productivity expert and bestselling author of five books including Time Management from the Inside Out, there are several things that can help us actually be more productive and effective (hint: none of her tips include multi-tasking).
1. The number one most powerful thing you can do to rediscover the power of focus is to control email use – scheduling when and how often you check your email.
2. Our multi-tasking can be mindless (meaning we do it before we even think about it), so creating a
mantra or phrase that gets you to refocus or resist distractions can be very helpful. Examples include: Leave it! One thing at a time. Finish this first.
3. Remove distractions. When you’re driving, don’t have the phone nearby. When you’re in a meeting, silence your phone or put your device away altogether.
4. Build “screen breaks” into your schedule, both at work and at home. The length should be a minimum of 1-3 hours at a time so you can engage more deeply and in different ways on problems, studying, writing, thinking, talking, etc (Kleiman, 2013).
So, fellow multi-taskers, let’s wave our white flags and surrender to science – we are fooling ourselves. Let’s be part of the revolution that builds a societal and organizational culture that celebrates productivity through focus. Be the radical that closes your laptop during the meeting, engages in a conversation without sneaking peeks at your twitter feed, and gets through a night without checking email.
And, yes…I’ll see you at the Multi-Taskers Anonymous Meeting.
Chow, D. (2013, June 13). Why Humans Are Bad at Multitasking. Retrieved from livescience.com: http://www.livescience.com/37420-multitasking-brain-psychology.html
Kleiman, J. (2013, January 13). How Multitasking Hurts Your Brain (and Your Effectiveness at Work). Retrieved from Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2013/01/15/how-multitasking-hurts-your-brain-and-your-effectiveness-at-work/