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If you can multitask, then you have one of the qualifications many jobs require job seekers to possess. Multitasking is one of the most important qualities employers look for in potential employees. When searching for jobs on the internet or in the newspaper, it is common to see job descriptions, such as, “Ability to multitask, time management efficiency, ability to prioritize workload and strong organizational skills.” However, is multitasking an efficient way to work and get work tasks completed?
As you are probably already aware, the art of multitasking is the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time. This has become a standard expectation of many employers, which their employees can work on multiple things at the same time, using time management skills and meeting required deadlines. While many people believe this is an acceptable expectation of employees in the workplace, there are a small number of individuals, including myself, that do not believe this is neither reasonable, nor an efficient way to run an office. Research conducted by multiple institutions over the years, including UCLA and the University of Michigan, has shown that multitasking creates unnecessary pressure on the employee. Furthermore, research results have proven that the brain prefers to work on one task at a time and dealing with multiple jobs simultaneously actually prevents employees from functioning at their optimum level.
Technology changed the workplace
Today’s workplace does not resemble the workplace we knew just a few decades ago. In this century, technology has dictated how businesses are run, and they run on high-speed. There is a total dependency on technological devices such as laptops and cell phones, where being in constant contact is not only required but a necessity. Technology has also prompted the use of social media outlets as marketing tools which require continual monitoring and updating. Employees are moving faster than ever, having to keep up with multiple forms of communication at once; emails, phone calls, texts, and tweets.
In the midst of managing all the latest ways of communicating, regular business tasks must also continue; holding meetings, putting together and reviewing reports, budget analysis, and project management. When you look at all that is required of employees, you can easily see how being able to multitask is a critical attribute to both the worker and the business. However, how is all of this juggling affecting the human brain?
Understanding the brain
To understand how multitasking affects the brain, it is important first to understand how the brain works. Of course, the brain is a very complicated organ. Not even the most knowledgeable and studied physicians in the field of neurology, neurosurgery or neurobiology can fully understand the complexity of the human brain, but enough is known to understand some of the basics regarding the brain’s composition and how it works. To understand the mind’s limitations, you need to know a little of how it works.
Author and International Leadership Coach, David Rock wrote, “Your Brain at Work,” and tells a story using Paul and Emily; two very busy people living challenging lives. David Rock explains that to perform tasks that involve problem-solving and decision-making, it requires the use of the prefrontal cortex of the brain to be activated. This part of the brain is located directly behind the forehead and is responsible for the all of your conscious behaviors. It is the portion of the brain that connects you, with your setting. According to David Rock, five primary functions are responsible for controlling our conscious thought: memorizing, inhibiting, recalling and understanding. It is these five functions and a combination of them that are needed to complete the tasks listed above; managing projects, reviewing reports, taking phone calls, doing a budget analysis and managing social media accounts.
All the jobs that use the prefrontal cortex of the brain utilize much energy to perform and complete them. David Rock goes on to explain that the brain just is not wired to handle having to use the prefrontal cortex of the brain to perform more than one ‘conscious’ activity at any one given time. Keeping a focus on two points of conscious thought activities is more than the brain can handle, even for the smartest or most intelligent people. What is a more reasonable expectation for the brain, is to manage and deal with two adjacent activities or projects instead. When the mind is required to focus on two concurrent projects, the brain is easily fatigued and can create a situation of lack of competency, accuracy, and credibility. There is a difference between adding a simple “auto-pilot” task into the mix of functions as opposed to trying to focus on two tasks that are considered “high-concentration” tasks. The “auto-pilot” feature can show a slight decrease in concentration while trying to juggle two “high-concentration” tasks have proven to significantly lower workers’ standards of performance, including effort and accuracy. Despite all the findings on how the brain operates when required to multitask as part of their job description, employers continue to put their workers at risk of mistakes and brain fatigue by mandating the art of multitasking in the workplace.
The facts that we know about the brain and multitasking are:
• Our brains are only able to focus on one “high conscious” task at a time
• Excessive energy is used when having to switch from one task to another. This creates brain fatigue and the risk of making mistakes
• Performance and accuracy levels decrease when trying to perform more than one task at a time.
• To improve job efficiency as well as complete them in a timely fashion is to perform them one at a time.
Pairing tasks to maximize accuracy
There is almost no way of getting around multitasking in the workplace. It is the norm, and it is the expectation that employees be able to perform more than one task at a time to maximize their time and keep the task-flow moving efficiently. With this being the case, to help ensure job accuracy, the best way to decrease the level of energy used and increase job efficiency, it is better to pair tasks appropriately. Matching tasks so that you best utilize your time and reserve brain energy can be accomplished by pairing a high concentration function with an auto-pilot task.
The following are some suggestions on task pairing to conserve brain energy for better job performance.
1. Define multitasking in the workplace
While many people may describe multitasking as simply doing more than one thing at a time, the reality is that multitasking is more than that. Multitasking is the ability to prioritize and work smarter. This means pairing tasks together in a way that optimizes your time, and you accomplish your tasks with competence. An example of how to manage two tasks might be that you would not want to try responding to a number of emails while trying to work the department’s budget. Both require significant attention and detail and to pair these two types of tasks is overtaxing on the brain and can surely be a cause for errors. However, if you do not feel it is a distraction to the meeting or your understanding of the latest information during a project update meeting, going through emails while listening to the overview might be a better way to get two things done at once.
2. Put away your device and listen
This is one of those situations that aggravates many people, especially bosses who have taken the time to put together valuable information, then formulating a meeting to distribute the information to the key players in the business. First and foremost, it is rude to sit on your Blackberry while someone who believes they have something important to say is speaking to deaf ears. Giving your full attention shows respect for what the presenter and what is being said. Beyond that, dividing your attention between a technological device and paying attention to information that you probably need to perform your job is setting yourself up to fail rather than an accomplishment. See, many people may think they are proactive and managing their time better by answering emails during a meeting, no matter how vital, as opposed to paying attention. All these causes are for there to be confusion about the information given at the meeting. There is nothing more frustrating for a boss or project manager than to have employees asking for the information that is provided at the meeting to be repeated or explained again. This takes up valuable time for everyone involved and makes bosses and managers wonder why they bother even having a meeting.
One thing many people do not do is take the time to refuel. It is hard to run on fumes every day, moving from one set of tasks to another without taking the time to refuel. I am one who is guilty of this very issue, and that is not to take a chance to eat and just shut-off the hustle and bustle of work. It is easy to try to work through lunch; use the time to accomplish two tasks of throwing a little lunch down while working on making calls, sifting through emails or going over a report, however, this is not the right time to try to multitask. Take, for example, filling your car with gas at the gas station. We all know that for safety reasons, it is important to shut the engine off while you refuel, but it also serves a different purpose to shut the motor down, and that is that a car refuels more efficiently without the engine running. The same applies to the brain; when you shut it off to refuel, you will refuel more effectively.
4. Learn to say NO and avoid distractions
One of the hardest things for people to do is say, “No.” No one likes distractions though they are everywhere in the workplace. Sometimes you may not realize you are being distracted when you get accustomed to certain distractions going on all around you; a regular ringing phone in the cubicle next to you that goes unanswered, or a co-worker stopping by to chat and catch up for a while when you are in the middle of a task. Did you know that the average employee typically spends about 2.5 hours out of the day dealing with distractions? As if that is not bad enough, it can take a full 25 minutes to get past the distraction and regain focus, which put together, is a big chunk of the day. Learning how to deal with distractions and implement the word, “No,” into you work vocabulary, is one big tip to helping you be more focused on task in front of you and will reduce the amount of energy your brain must use to deal with the distraction and then refocus your mind back to work.
Not all distractions are external distractions. There are many internal distractions that can bombard you during the day; these are distractions you deal with in your mind; from thinking about an upcoming party you’re going to, thinking about your car that needs to go to the shop, your child’s school project, or whatever is important to you outside of work. However, learning how to handle distractions and how to say “No” when appropriate, can significantly reduce the amount of time dealing with distractions and keep you focused. Bear in mind that you have a very brief amount of time, in which to shut them down before they become full-fledged distractions that will require a whole re-focus effort.
Here are some tips on how you can help shut both external and internal distractions down:
1. Ask your co-worker if you can meet over lunch or after work to catch up rather than during the middle of your work day.
2. Ask the worker in the next cubicle if he could please send his unanswered calls to voicemail to prevent excessive phone ringing.
3. When an internal distraction pops into mind, use that time to cut it off immediately and regain focus back on the task at hand before it snowballs out of control. The more you do this; the more your brain will retrain itself not to let internal, outside of the office distractions plague your mind while at work.
4. For the big players in the room, you may get the distractions of added projects thrown your way when you know you already have enough on your plate as it is. For this type of disturbance, it is always best to discuss the situation with your boss. If saying No is not an option, find out his expectations and priorities with the project. You will also want to know what are the options if things start to unravel due to time constraints and your workload.
The final thoughts are focused on how important is multitasking? In today’s world, it seems like there is always so much more that is needing to be done in less time, which is where trying to juggle multiple tasks at one time comes into play. However, with all that we know about the brain and how it handles various working tasks at once, it stands to reason that what bosses need to examine and re-examine is what they are willing to compromise; quantity of quality, or quality over quantity. The more you overtax your brain to complete multiple high-conscious tasks at the same time, the greater the risk of ending up with a poorer quality of work and job performances. In the end, bosses and managers will need to pick one, because clearly, they cannot have both.