Trying to keep too many balls in the air?

13 May 2016

OKAY, so you have probably heard all these Gen Y hotshots talk about how good they are at multitasking. They grew up in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, Snapchat, Instagram and Tinder and have probably mastered the art of engaging with several types of media at the same time.

A 'Generation X' child myself, I can't master this level of social interaction unless watching a match, holding a pint and talking tactics counts.

Socially we have been indoctrinated to believe that multitasking is where it's at. But is it really? Is multitasking in the workplace a virtue or really just a vice?

Research has suggested multitasking at work can be quite counter-productive. One study asked students to complete experiments that involved switching tasks. The expectation was that frequent multi-taksers would outperform their colleagues; in fact the opposite was found to be true and indeed the multi-taksers, when asked to focus on just one task, were found to use their brain less effectively than the others. A recent article in ‘Psychology Today' suggests that you could even lose up to 40 per cent of your productivity when trying to multi-task.

Even the term multi-tasking is a misnomer. It's really task switching; moving between tasks, rather than completing them simultaneously. Studies have suggested the brain can only really focus on one or two tasks at once. I know I've lost count of the times I have irritated my wife by having to rewind the last five minutes of a show on TV because I was trying to simultaneously read something on the iPad or chat with the lads on Telegram.

Now there are exceptions; routine ingrained physical tasks that can be completed subconsciously. We can walk and talk. We can eat popcorn and watch a movie (I personally wish people didn't but that's a whole other story). However when we try to specifically focus on tasks simultaneously, we can be in danger of lowering performance.

So how should we apply this at work? We might try the following:

  • Group your routine activities together. If you need to answer emails, then set aside a couple of half hours across the day to do this.
  • Set out your schedule at the start of the day so you know what needs to be done, including who and when for.
  • Do your important work first. If you have a lot of work to do, figure out what's important and cover that off first.
  • Start training your brain to get used to focusing for reasonable periods of time. If you really need to work across multiple pieces of work, give yourself at good 20min at least on each before shifting to something else.
  • Control the variables: if you work in a noisy office, find somewhere quiet. If you keep getting distracted by people looking your attention, then turn your phone off and close your emails down.
  • Learn to say no: if what you are working on right now is important then let people know they will have to wait in line for their slice of your time.

And remember; making a mess of four things at the same time may be multitasking but it sure ain't helpful.

As Phillip Stanhope once wrote:

There is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year; if you will do two things at the same time

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