Do you take pride in your ability to multitask? It turns out that it’s not that uncommon (I recently saw it included on a resume as a skill!). Stepping back, I suppose I can understand the desire to do several things at once. That’s like superpower stuff. Unfortunately, one look around the office or on the sidewalks outside tells a different story. It seems that everywhere you look these days you notice people texting and checking emails as they walk, barely avoiding walking into things or one another. Ever tried to have a conversation with someone at the same time they are texting or reading an email? It’s frustrating and inefficient.
When you think you’re multitasking, you’re more accurately engaging in serial tasking: quickly shifting from one task to another as opposed to literally doing two things at once. Focus on the email for a moment, then shift your attention to the phone conversation. We tell ourselves we’re being effective but the vast body of research on multitasking suggests that this activity is neither effective, nor efficient. The transition, when you shift your focus from one task to another, is rapid and involves a “lag” period, during which your brain can’t focus on either task. In fact, multitasking has been demonstrated to take 40% more time than single tasking, especially when it comes to more complex tasks.
When you’re trying to do two things at once, your brain is generally overwhelmed by the amount of processing involved in each one of them. It’s simply impossible to process and encode two separate streams of information in the short term memory – the “working” segment of the brain. For you to be able to remember certain information, your working memory needs to process and then encode it into the long-term memory. Essentially, this means that, when you’re looking at your phone, while in an important meeting, you can neither hear what others are saying, nor read and remember the information that you’re looking at. Your brain constantly shifts between the two, effectively resulting in you missing the gist of the two. With a shorter retention span than usual – with less effectiveness – you’re also more likely to have to redo the work in order to get the result you would’ve had if you’ve focused on the task alone.
A University of California Irvine study measured the heart rates of people with and without constant access to their office email. Those who remained connected had higher heart rates indicative of remaining in a perpetual “high-alert” mode. Those without access attempted less multitasking and were less stressed. And that’s just the physical impact of multitasking.
Multitasking Compromises Our Performance. (It’s also just plain rude)
I was recently in a meeting with two executives who each kept their smartphones center stage. For a moment I thought that perhaps they were texting each other but after a while I realized that the interval of their phone-to-meeting ratio wasn’t in sync. At one point while I was presenting, they were both reading their screens. So I did what anyone would do: I worked in the phrase, “I like potatoes” and neither of them noticed or responded. I’m sure that they both thought they were being effective but the message they sent was that they would rather be someplace else – and because they allowed their attention go there, they also were letting me know that that place was more important that I was.
Most of the time you may get away with being only partially engaged (or at least it seems that way). But what you’re missing is likely more important than you realize. You’re too busy and too distracted by what you thought was important at the moment to actually experience things. And when you’re not fully present, all of your decisions and actions are affected by it.
Next time you find yourself feeling the urge to multitask, stop. Devote your full attention to completing the current task – finish the email, wrap up the phone call, end the meeting – and then move on. Think: OHIO – Only Handle It Once. This is a common response to those with ADHD but really can be used by anyone who wants to be more organized. Basically, if you’re doing something, don’t stop until you’re finished. Handling tasks five or six times before completion takes time. Mono-tasking requires you to manage distractions, even those brilliant ideas you have in the middle of doing something. Truly effective time management will allow you to pursue other tasks and ideas when you can devote your full attention to them. Perhaps most importantly, mono-tasking sets the example you want others to emulate. Overall, being present helps manage stress, avoid burnout, enhance leadership capacity, and steady our minds when making important business decisions, career transitions, and personal life changes.