Multitasking has been in favour for some time, perhaps since the 90’s when people decided that efficiency was King, and surely we should be able to get more done. Fast forward to today and brain science tells a very different story – not only about how much we can get done, but how well we’ll do it. After all, you may get that proposal or finished product out to your customer on time, or even early, but is it as good as you’d like? Did you nail it?
This focus on working bigger, better, faster has taken a turn in recent years so that instead of asking ‘How much can I get done – and how quickly?’ we are thinking about ‘How can I get this done in the smartest – and most sustainable – way?’ We’re realising that people simply aren’t machines and they can and do get burned out – and burning out is rather costly for both the individual and the organisation.
Research is going on around the world looking at how our neurology is affected by multitasking – from France and London to University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Stanford University. Across the board, it’s clear that we’re just not built for it. Instead, we are at our best when we let ourselves focus on one thing at a time.
There’s one particularly simple explanation for this – we have limited capacity for processing information at a conscious level, or in what scientists call our working memory. We can process approximately 7+/- 2 bits per second (computer speed) which means we can only hold a handful of information in our mind at once before things start to ‘drop off’.
Think of that shopping trip where you had your list of groceries in mind (just eggs, broccoli, milk, the bread Jess likes and some loo paper). But, when your other half sent a text asking for feta cheese and a cauli, the eggs fell off your mental shopping list and … now you’re half way home sans eggs.
You can blame your frontal cortex for this – it just can’t always hold it all at once.
What the science says
Earl Miller is a bass playing world-renowned neuroscientist at MIT. He explains that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”
The cost is that it taxes our working memory, causes mental fatigue, stress (it’s shown to increase cortisol levels), difficulty decision making, and often lowers our efficiency and work quality.
Research has also shown that multitasking reduces your IQ. A study at the University Of London has demonstrated that people experience a significant reduction IQ when they multitask while performing cognitive tasks. The reduced IQ of test subjects was similar to what people exhibit who skip a night of sleep or who smoke marijuana. That’s substantial, particularly in the context of functioning well at work.
Added to that, multitasking can reduce our EQ (Emotional Intelligence) as well and given the fact that EQ is considered the top predictor of performance and success in the workplace, that’s a great loss. The clever team at Talent Smart (excuse the pun) explain how multitasking might be damaging your career.
The need for getting more mindful
Technology, social media and the pace of change expose us to so much information in such quick succession that even if we want to focus on one task at a time, we can find it difficult. This probably explains the mindfulness revolution that has swept the globe in recent years.
Mindfulness featured on the cover of Time magazine in 2014 and since then has flowed through office corridors from Google to government departments, to schools and beyond. At the heart of mindfulness is the value of being in the moment – with our attention on one thing at a time. Being able to do that at work can start to make a real difference to how we’re performing, feeling and being.
Typical mindfulness practices taught in the west are designed to help cultivate a slowing down, a coming into the moment, the ability to be with what’s right in front of you. This is very simple, but that doesn’t mean it is always very easy – especially if you’re used to going a million miles an hour.
They are intended to help the mind rest on one thing, which then leads to better concentration at work, easier decision making, less stress and so on. Practicing just being in the moment with your breath, or doing a short and simple meditation each day starts to cultivate this in-the-moment-ness and leads to more mental resilience.
- Next time you’re stopped at the lights, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room or even standing at the checkout, rather than looking at your phone or a magazine – or getting annoyed with the traffic in front of you – simply breathe for a few moments. Let it be the one thing you are doing: simply noticing your breath, or the sensation of sitting in your chair, or of your feet on the ground.
- If you need to focus on writing a report that will take an hour and you are not an emergency room doctor (seriously, folks), put your phone on silent, turn it upside down and knuckle down. How good is it going to feel to get it done, and done well?
- Capture your to-do’s for the day on a piece of paper so you can see them laid out in front of you, then attend to the first thing on the list. In this way, your brain knows (particularly at an unconscious level) that you have the list in hand and your nervous system is more likely to relax and let you concentrate on the task in front of you.
- Complete tasks in batches of the same kind since they require the same thinking mode – clear your emails, sort some admin, prepare all of your invoices in one go.
- Rather than expecting staff members to do multiple things at once, encourage ‘one thing at a time’. Ask them helpful open questions to think about how they can arrange their work.
Earl Miller is actually starting to explore how technology might help us to increase our working memory and process more information through that area of the brain – but we’re not there yet, and our capacity is what it is right now. Here’s to using our brain mindfully.