In 2019 Annual Conference

By Jennifer Harris, (Twitter – @healthystlucie, IG – @healthystlucie) Treasure Coast Chapter

In the past year, the increasing number of projects at work and home have made time one of my most precious resources.  Multitasking often seems like the only solution to get it all done.   But even as I have checked off a few more items from my to-do list, I often feel like I am not being as effective at work and present at home as I would like.  I chose Scott Blade’s presentation, The Mirage of Multitasking: Finding Your Focus, Flow and Finish Line for some fresh ideas.

Scott was quick to let us know that his presentation was not about how to become a better multitasker, but rather, how to reduce multitasking to become more productive and effective.  There are days where many of us feel like we are brilliant multitaskers, but Scott says scientific research finds only 2-3% of population is good at multitasking.  They are known as supertaskers.

Multitasking Defined

defines multitasking as focusing on more than one assignment at one time, repeatedly switching back and forth between activities, or performing a number of loosely related or unrelated tasks in rapid succession.  There are some activity parings that do not seem to affect performance, like walking or chewing gum at the same time, or folding laundry and singing along to your favorite song at the same time.  But the human brain starts to break down when it attempts to engage in two tasks that require conscious thought at the same time.  Think about the last time you were a monthly working on a report while listening in on a webinar.

The Multitasking Brain

When your brain performs two cognitive tasks at one time, your cerebral cortex manages what are called “executive controls.”  These controls organize the way your brain processes tasks into two stages:

  • Stage 1 – Goal Shifting, happens when you shift your focus from one activity to another task.
  • Stage 2 – Rule Activation, happens when your brain shifts to the new activity, it must change the rules from the previous activity and then turn on the rules for the new activity.

Scott says the way to look at multitasking is switchtasking, as you are actually switching back and forth between two activities, forcing your brain to shift focus repeatedly.

Multitasking also burns up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel you need to deeply focus and do your best work.  So, you might be thinking this is the time to just eat that candy bar, right?

Multitasking: Effects on Cognition and Productivity

Scott compares multitasking to Kryptonite for Superman, as it takes away all your super powers.  In fact, Scott presented several areas affected by multitasking.

Mental Disorganization

Scott pointed to research from Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, that found that multitasking while learning information causes new information to go to the wrong part of the brain.  This makes our ability to recall things later more difficult.

Loss of IQ Points

Research from the University of London suggests that multitasking affects your brain much like smoking marijuana or going without sleep for a night.  And participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks dropped as many as 15 IQ points and fell to the average range of an 8-year-old child.

More Errors

In his 2008 book, Brain Rules, John Median reports that multitaskers make up to 50% more errors than those who are not multitasking.

“Inattentional Blindness”

According to a 2009 study from Western Washington University, people who are busy doing two things at once do not even see noticeable things right in front of them.  In this case, the researchers asked a clown to ride around on a unicycle at a campus square.  Seventy five percent of college students who walked across this square while talking on their cell phones did not even notice the clown.

Decreased Productivity

A 2001 study by Rubinstein, Evans, and Meyer suggests that people can reduce their productivity by as much as 40 percent by the mental blocks that result from repeatedly switching tasks.  And John Medina’s research reveals that the multitaskers take 50% longer to accomplish a single task than people who focus on one thing at a time.

Still not convinced multitasking is an issue?  Scott conducted an activity with our group he called, “Multitasking Olympics.”  In this 60 second activity, we were asked to read an email while listening to a recorded message.  Immediately following the activity, we were asked to complete 10 questions about what they read and heard.  Most all participants were not able to recall 60% of the content from the email or audio.  And, only one participant recalled 90%, and might be that elusive supertasker we learned about.

Multitasking: Effects on Stress, Decision Making, and Creativity

Increased Stress

Multitasking increases the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone, adrenaline.  This results in an overstimulated brain, mental fog, and scrambled thinking.  Gloria Mark and Stephen Voida of the University of California found that employees who were constantly connected to email stayed in perpetual “high alert” mode and experienced higher heart rates.

Decision Making

Lots of multitasking requires lots of decision-making.  This exhausts our neural resources and causes us to lose impulse control.

Diminished Creativity

According to a 2010 research study from the University of Chicago, multitasking takes a lot of “working memory” or temporary brain storage.  Creativity also requires a large amount of working memory.  If we use up our working memory to multitask, we diminish the cognitive resources necessary to daydream and generate imaginative ideas.  Which is why many of us get our great ideas in the shower or on a walk.

Multitasking:  What about Music?

Dr. Joanne Cantor, a Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reports that music can help or hinder your work depending on the nature of the task you are trying to perform and the nature of the music.  Here are her general conclusions:

  • Repetitive tasks needing focus, but not much cognitive processing can have upbeat music with or without lyrics during the task.
  • Tasks needing cognitive processing or creativity can have upbeat music before and during breaks, but not during the tasks.
  • Tasks needing high information processing need zen-like, tonal music with no lyrics, during the task.
  • For problem-solving or highly cognitive, complex tasks, avoid popular music with lyrics as it will pull you into multitasking and interfere with the quality of your work.

Are Women Better Multitaskers than Men?

Both men and women are awful at multitasking, but according to research, women are slightly less awful than men.  But don’t we want the bar to be higher?

Top 5 Strategies for Minimizing Multitasking & Maximizing Your Performance

  1. Set clear priorities and define what needs your focus now, what can wait, and what you can release altogether.
  2. Set aside chunks of time to focus on a specific task or group of related tasks. Clifford Nass suggests following at 20-minute rule at a minimum.
  3. Enter a lockdown state in your office and give yourself permission to focus on a single task for a more extended period of time.
  4. Minimize distractions in your workspace by muting your phone and computer and turning off all sound alerts.
  5. Watch that open door policy as research suggests that the average interruption takes anywhere from 2-15 minutes of recovery time. Think about shooting an email to your team or putting up a “do not disturb” sign on your door.
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