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Out of focus: The multitasking dilemma

Bart Perkins | Oct. 8, 2015
Just about everyone is doing it, but no one does it well

Man multi-tasking

The widespread adoption of digital communication in everyday life has vastly increased the temptation to multitask. Many people, particularly millennials, feel they need to continuously monitor news feeds, social media, text messages and other sources of digital information. Unfortunately, heavy media multitasking reduces personal effectiveness at work. Serious multitaskers may find it hard to believe, but research from Stanford University reports that people don’t multitask well. Consuming multiple electronic feeds simultaneously reduces attention, memory control and the speed with which an individual can switch among tasks.

The Stanford researchers compared people who regularly multitasked on electronic media against those who engaged in little media multitasking. They concluded that heavy multitaskers have difficulty focusing on important information, since they are easily distracted by irrelevant data. The researchers are convinced that chronic multitaskers’ minds do not work at maximum effectiveness, since they cannot help thinking about all the things they are currently not doing. The researchers are trying to determine if information overload harms cognitive ability or if regular multitaskers have always had minimal ability to concentrate.

Worse, chronic multitaskers often miss an important idea during the short time they have switched their focus. Most business conversations are short, direct and to the point. Even a few lost words can significantly inhibit the multitasker’s ability to make a meaningful contribution to the discussion.

If you have heavy media multitaskers in your organization, encourage them to do the following:

  • Understand that heavy multitasking decreases rather than increases productivity. As the Stanford study concluded, it is more efficient to focus on one task at a time. The study also observed that most individuals accomplish more by doing less.

Multitaskers who are not convinced should try the following exercise. Make three columns on a page. Have someone time you as you write the numbers one through 23 from top to bottom in the first column, the letters A through W in the second column, and the Roman numerals one through 23 in the third column. On a new page, re-create the same table by row (1, A, I is the first row) instead of by column. Compare the times. Most people find that the context switching required to create the second table increases their time by 15% to 20%.

  • Turn off their phone during meetings. While timely responses to digital communications are appreciated (and expected by most millennials), instantaneous responses are rarely required. Barring a true emergency, most people resent calls or electronic messages that interrupt meetings. And while they may not like it, even customers know that all organizations, including IT, serve many others.

Even if multitasking were equally efficient, management dislikes seeing subordinates shift their focus to check their digital media. Most managers, particularly those that are overcommitted, believe their time is valuable and resent having to wait even the short time it takes for an employee to read and respond to a message. Correspondingly, few executives would expect a subordinate to wait while they read and responded to their messages during a meeting. (If a true emergency arises, the meeting will be interrupted and rescheduled in order to address the crisis.) Moreover, when the highest-ranking person in a meeting looks at his/her phone or tablet, other participants assume they have permission to do the same, and will promptly begin checking their own digital media. Set a good example!

  • Be attentive in meetings. Everyone has competing priorities. Working on another project while attending a meeting rarely works well. Other participants don’t mind some keyboarding during a meeting if the individual is taking notes or researching meeting issues. However, habitually failing to engage in meeting discussions due to multitasking is frowned upon.


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