It was 8.00am.  My task was to write a proposal for a 2 day leadership program.  It would take me no more than 45 minutes and then I could return to a weekend with my family (or so I thought). By 10.30am I had responded to 12 emails, donated money to a team charity day, viewed the activity on 3 Linked Groups that I follow and had another 3 windows open on my computer. This is what I saw as I looked at my desk……….

I’d barely started my one and only task for the day and the primary reason for me being at my desk. How did I arrive at this place? After 2.5 hours, what had I really achieved?

This story is not dissimilar to the situation many of us, including business leaders find themselves in each and every day. I started to wonder what it is that drives us to multitask and whether this pattern of behavior aids or hinders our productivity.  I turned to the research to find some answers and this is what I discovered.

  • A recent Harvard Business Review articles says that multitasking leads to as much as a 40% drop in productivity and increased stress (Bergman, 2010).
  • When we shift between tasks we take 50% longer to accomplish a task, and make up to 50% more errors.
  • We take on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages (NY Times, Microsoft study).
  • When workers multitask their IQs drop 10 points (University of London). Study after study has shown that people don’t really multitask, they just hop sequentially from task to task and perform each one less effectively than if they did the tasks one at a time.
  • The more we multitask the more we experience difficulty in making decisions. We crave options, and instead of choosing one task, we choose them all. We open another screen or click on another link and then the brain struggles to figure out what to keep and what to disregard.
  • We become less creative. Numerous studies have shown that focusing on multiple activities stifles our creativity. Creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day.
  • Internet addiction disorder is real and  we are warned to expect an epidemic of email apnoea and nomophobia, the fear of being out of mobile phone contact.
  • The data deluge is leading to poor sleep habits. A US sleep survey (March, 2011) released found a link between late-night computer and mobile phone use and poor sleep.
  • Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. Our ability to focus becomes undermined by the constant bursts of information and continual distractions.  We become so busy processing information that we are losing the tendency to think and feel.

If these are the downsides of multitasking, why do we do it?

Apparently, we have a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities that are presented to us.  This stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored. An arriving email is or a new Facebook post induces the dopamine squirt and stops us from feeling bored.

In many ways we are wired to multi-task at a physical level.  We like it and it feels good to  to let our attention wander across multiple software applications, browser tabs, e-mail, Twitter, instant messaging, phone calls, and to have music playing in the background. Just don’t confuse it with being productive. When it’s time to get down to work, it’s time to employ some tips to avoid our tendency to multitask so we can perform at our best.

Tips for avoiding multitasking

  1. Become a mono-tasker – The brain works best focusing on one task at a time. When you are working on a task, turn off all other distractions. Close your office door (if you have one). Work off-line if you can. Let your calls go to voicemail and turn off your mobile phone.
  2. Focus – Focus is key to mono-tasking. Start the work day by focusing first on whatever you’ve decided the night before is the most important activity. Begin the day  by tackling this first and stick with it until it’s done.
  3. Block it out. – Plan your day in blocks, with open time in between for urgent stuff that comes up.  Deal with your emails in blocks rather than as and when they arrive.
  4. Downtime – Be sure to give your brain some downtime.  Your brain needs rest. Take breaks to clear your head and when you move from one activity to the next.  Aim to take a break at least every 90 minutes to recharge your batteries and regain your focus.  Get outside if you can.  Research has found that people learn better after a walk in nature or some form of physical exercise.
  5. Decide – Make decisions and move on. Focus on the information you need not the extra information (because there is a tonne of it out there if you go looking).
  6. Stop when you have what you need. Be a sufficer and be able to say I’ve got what I need and that’s enough.  Avoid becoming a maximiser and falling into the trap of continual web surfing and constant information gathering in your struggle to make a decision and move on.
  7. Write it down – It’s inevitable that new thoughts, ideas, tasks, opportunities will come to you when you are in your zone of focus. When this happens, write it down on a list as it comes to you.

This tips don’t mean that you can’t do multiple tasks in one day. The message is to focus on one thing at one time so you do each of those things better.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this?

  • Do you believe in multitasking?
  • What have you noticed for yourself when you multitask?
  • Do you have any other tips you can share?

Thanks for reading.  Time for me to get back to that proposal now! Melissa

“When you are walking, walk. When you are sitting, sit.” ~ The Buddha

“Always do one thing at a time, that of the present moment.” ~ George Gurdjieff

Melissa Donaldson

For the past 15 years, I've partnered with senior executives and leaders in public and private sector organisations to execute significant change, design and implement leadership capability programs, renegotiate complex industrial agreements and build leader and team performance.

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