Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Science Of Multitasking

'Productivity' is always a key word in business but approaches for improving performance to increase productivity are diverse.

Multitasking is an approach that is often misunderstood. It has become something of a feature of the modern workplace, so it's worth taking a look at what's going on in the brain when we multitask and considering whether it really does benefit us in the ways we imagine.

Multitasking in everyday life

We may consider that we are good multi-taskers because we can shave and make dinner plans at the same time; or stir the pasta sauce while following the news on TV; but in these situations one of those tasks is a deeply embedded, automated task that doesn't really have to consciously engage the brain - and the other one is the focus of our attention.

Unfortunately this scenario often has grave consequences, when extended to driving a car and talking to a friend on the phone; driving is taken as the 'automated task' when in actual fact it is not and the road requires our attention at all times.

All the evidence suggests that multitasking is simply not possible without performance suffering - UNLESS two conditions are met, according to an article published in Psychology Today in 2011: one of the tasks must be so ingrained that no focus is necessary; and the tasks must involve different types of brain processing.

The article uses the example of reading while listening to music without lyrics - this is possible because the music and the text are using different types of brain processing; however, where the music has lyrics, it's another matter and our powers of retention of what we're reading will be diminished because we are using the same language center of the brain.

The more we know from neuroscience the more it appears that our brains are not made to receive and process multiple streams of information at the same time but perform better when there is a particular direction to focus on.

Dr Gazzaley from the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California says the brain is actually 'switching gears' when we attempt to do more than one thing that requires our attention at a time:

'... when you demand great degrees of quality or of care what happens as opposed to actually doing two things at the same time, it seems that you switch between these things. And with each switch, there's a cost in performance.'

There is even evidence that the people who multitask the most are the least capable of any important aspect of multitasking.

Multitasking at work

The implications of these findings stretch beyond the inability to recall what a customer said because you were sneakily reading a text message under the table at the time.

Unless you are wholly focused on the task in hand, the likelihood is your performance will suffer. Much of your most productive time at work depends on deep thinking and that is made less possible in a work environment where there is constant distraction from mobile gadgets and all the other 'noise' around you. This may consist of your colleagues, an over-zealous boss who thinks you're superman and keeps piling new and urgent tasks on your desk; or you may be your own worst enemy and keep telling yourself that you can do two things at once, when you probably cannot.

The truth is that most of the time, having one thing to do is enough; the rest can and should wait until the most important task has been successfully completed.

This is why it's important to be adept at setting priorities and at time management; and also why there should be guidelines for use of social media and the many communication channels available in the workplace. It's important for leadership to drive the message from the top and create an organisational culture where people are not placed under unreasonable pressure that can drive them to multitask to get things completed on schedule.

Otherwise we may be doing more harm than good, both in terms of productivity and employee satisfaction and motivation levels. The information age, which promised to make us more connected and more productive, is in danger of having the reverse effect unless we are aware of the dangers of multitasking.

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