Stanford University

Multi-Tasking – Is it An Effective Time Management Strategy?

As you browse job postings in the newspaper or on the web, it is very evident that multi-tasking is a key time management competency required in today’s work environment. It is implicitly or explicitly spelled out in job postings with phrases such as “Ability to prioritize workload, manage time efficiently and meet set deadlines”, “highly organized, innovative, problem-solver”, or “Strong organizational skills with ability to multitask”. But is multi-tasking really an effective time management skill?

Multi-tasking as we know it today requires people to work on many things all at the same time. But there is a handful of people, myself included, who believe the demands of multi-tasking put undue and arguably unnecessary pressure on employees. This creates stressful work environments and will usually have a negative impact on performance. I believe that the problem with multi-tasking likes in the way it is defined and subsequently the way we attempt to execute it. MSN Encarta’s online dictionary defines multi-tasking as “doing several things at once: to perform more than one task at the same time.” But is that really humanly possible? As it turns out, there have been many research studies conducted by institutions such as Stanford University, University of Michigan, UCLA and many others into the human brain and its capability of handling multiple simultaneous assignments. The findings of these studies have astounded even the researchers, revealing that the human brain does not function optimally when taxed with multiple demands that must be addressed simultaneously. Allow me to clarify here – this does not mean that employees are incapable of managing multiple responsibilities. What the results of the studies suggest is that the brain prefers to focus on one thing at a time in a designated time period.

The 21st century workplace depends heavily on technology as the primary mode of communication. Everyone owns a company blackberry and it seems that the new expectations for productivity require employees to be connected around the clock. Additionally, social media networking is increasingly gaining popularity as a viable marketing tool for organizations. Employees in the modern workplace find themselves juggling emails, text messages, tweets and Facebook updates with traditional business activities like attending meetings, reviewing reports, balancing budgets and managing projects. Lots of reasons to warrant multi-tasking you say? Well let’s take a closer look.

International leadership coach and author David Rock wrote the book “Your Brain at Work” and tells his story through the very busy and demanding lives of Paul and Emily. Now I will not pretend to be a neurobiologist and begin discussing the composition and complexity of the human brain. But in order to understand and appreciate the brain’s limitations, it is necessary to understand some basic facts about its composition and how it operates. Activities which require problem-solving and decision making skills activate a section of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the section of the brain behind your forehead and it controls all of your conscious behaviors and interactions with your environment. According to David Rock’s book, there are five key functions that make up the majority of our conscious thoughts: understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing and inhibiting. Performing tasks such as problem-solving, communicating, reviewing reports, managing projects and others like these require the use of various combinations of these functions.

These activities rely exclusively on the prefrontal cortex and require a lot of energy for execution. Not surprisingly, through his analysis, he was able to point out what experts have known for a long time and research has corroborated – the human brain – even the smartest of them – is not wired neurologically to process more than one ‘conscious’ activity at the same time. The two points of focus here are conscious activity and at the same time. While we can manage several adjacent projects, the problems arise when we try to work on more than one project concurrently. Through storytelling he was able to show the effect of trying to do too many things at the same time and how quickly accuracy, competence and credibility begin to suffer. Studies into the phenomenon of ‘dual -task interference’ have consistently shown that for best performance and accuracy people should focus on one project or task at time. When they add a task that is considered ‘imbedded’ ‘or auto-pilot’ performance is somewhat impacted with a slight drop in accuracy. But when they try to juggle more than one high concentration task there is a significant drop in performance and accuracy. Yet despite these consistent finding, most organizations still require employees to engage in ‘continuous partial attention’ where one’s attention is always split between high level tasks resulting in constant mental exhaustion, which, yep you guessed it, impacts the quality and accuracy of our work. Furthermore, these studies also revealed that when juggling more than one high intensity task, people end up taking more time to get it all done, so there is no time saving realized. Yet the facts about how our brains are wired to work remain constant:

– We can focus on only one conscious task at a time

– Switching between tasks uses energy; when we do this a lot we are prone to making mistakes

– Doing multiple conscious tasks at the same time will lead to decreased accuracy and/or performance

– The only way to do two mental tasks quickly and maintain a high accuracy level is to do them one at a time

And so, given the biological limitations of how much the brain can handle at one time, it is important that managers consider the impact on performance and therefore develop realistic expectations for themselves and their employees when it comes to multi-tasking. If we must multi-task there is wisdom in being selective about which activities will be paired together. While it is an expectation that employees are able to ‘maximize their time’ by working on more than one thing at a time, employees should be careful to pair their top level responsibilities with activities which they essentially can perform while on ‘auto-pilot’. These tasks will be less demanding on our energy resources and they rely on a different part of the brain – leaving the prefrontal cortex free to better focus on the more complex task.

And so to better utilize our brain power it might be prudent for us to consider some of the ideas I’m presenting below:

1. Let’s properly define multi-tasking for the workplace. From my perspective, multi-tasking in the workplace is much more complex than simply doing several things at the same time. It is a time management competency that requires the ability to prioritize in order to effectively handle the multiple projects on your plate. Multi-tasking is the ability to work smarter by determining when it is appropriate to focus on more than one task at a time. For example, you do not want to be responding to email requests while you are trying to balance your department’s budget. But, you may be able to check those emails during your project update conference call as long as you’re not a key presenter or even the note taker. Always exercise wisdom when pairing tasks, ensuring that you do not pair two high concentration tasks together. We will not be able to escape the responsibility of multiple projects, but we must exercise full control of our time in order be effective with the specific task at hand. See, the ultimate goal of multi-tasking should not be what volume of stuff can be completed in a short period of time. Instead it should be about efficiency in managing your time to do a good job fulfilling all of your responsibilities.

2. Put away the blackberry when you’re in a meeting! This particular issue is a pet peeve of mine, and you may or may not agree with it. I always remember the way I was brought up and constantly hear my mother’s voice saying “Stop doing ‘that’ and look at me when I’m talking to you!” Because ‘everyone is doing it’, it appears that distracted attendees are an expectation for meetings today. If that is the case, why have the meeting at all? Why not just send a summary of the points you want to address via email since everyone is always checking their emails anyway? Think about it. How many times have you called a meeting because you want to make sure everyone gets the same information at the same time, but the people who you really want to be engaged are only giving you a part of their attention? Then an hour after the meeting they send you an email asking you for information that was addressed and discussed at length during the meeting? See the truth is, while they thought they were doing a good job multi-tasking, they were really more focused on the other stuff they were doing, so they missed the good discussions. The bottom line for me is I don’t want to be rude. Therefore just as much as we expect meeting leaders to come prepared to lead their meetings, by the same token we should be prepared to fully participate through listen and when appropriate contributing and giving feedback.

3. This next point is a weakness for me. It is the tendency to work through lunch. I am definitely guilty of this. Remember, the prefrontal cortex where all of our understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing and inhibiting is done, uses a lot of energy. It’s a good idea to take a break in the action and physically remove yourself from your work to concentrate on your meal. Mealtime is refueling time. Think about it. When you take your car to the gas station for a refill you don’t leave the engine running while you fill up do you? There’s good reason for that. I’m no car mechanic, but it’s reasonable to assume that turning the engine off allows the car to be more receptive to fuel being injected and reduces the risk of major mishaps such as sparks from the engine connecting with fuel and causing an explosion! Likewise when refueling your body (and your brain), turn your engines off. Get your energy level back up so that you can function more effectively.

4. Lastly, learn to appreciate the use of the word NO. I’ve said this before and I really believe this. And so does David Rock. Studies have shown that the average employee spends about 2.5 hours each day dealing with distractions. And once distracted it takes about 25 minutes before you can refocus on your project. But the distraction isn’t always external – such as your cube-neighbor’s phone constantly ringing and he’s not there to answer it, or from your good friend stopping by to say hello just as you were getting your flow with your work. The vast majority of distractions are internal – like thinking about hanging out with your buddies later and how much fun you will have, or what will you do for dinner tonight, or you’re still tired from all the partying you did this past weekend. Learning to say NO to distractions, both internal and external, is a skill that can be learned but it requires an ability to focus. For internal distractions, David Rock describes the ability of putting on the breaks and nipping internal turmoil in the bud before the ideas have a chance to take root. Be forewarned though, you have about 0.2 seconds to make that happen! For external distractions be OK with pressing “send calls to voicemail” on your neighbor’s phone; or ask your buddy to connect during lunch instead so you can stay focused. Additionally, sometimes for high performers the distraction comes in the form of additional projects and responsibilities. If your docket is full, don’t be embarrassed to admit it. Taking on a new project when you’re already stretched to your limits is not wise. If saying no is not an option, consider discussing expectations and priorities with your manager. What are the expectations and how realistic are they? What is most important to the business at this time? And what are the consequences if things begin falling through the cracks because you have too much to handle?

The reality is, if we are honest, we have to admit that multi-tasking as we have come to know it does not always benefit our business. We don’t get more done in less time. It actually takes us longer to get things done right if the quality and accuracy of our work is important to us. Whenever we are rushed or pressured to get more things done faster there is a high likelihood that the quality and accuracy will be compromised. So the question we should be asking ourselves (and our managers) is: what’s most important at this time – is it the amount of work we can get done in a finite amount of time, or is it the quality of our output? There is ample research that supports the fact that as quantity of work increases, quality of work decreases. We should therefore decide which one is most important to our businesses and to us – quantity or quality. Pick one ’cause it can’t be both.

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