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May I Have Your Full Attention Please?

Multitasking impedes our ability to complete our work in the most effective and time efficient manner, and yet, it’s widely touted as a “skill” or “ability.” What’s there to brag about, anyway? Doesn’t everyone do it?

In some situations, juggling tasks can be beneficial, like eating your breakfast while reading the paper, or keeping your kids from pulverizing each other while you’re grocery shopping. However, that’s different than trying to pay attention at work while multitasking projects, meetings, deadlines, email, calls, IMs and more. The brain interprets lower level tasks (like eating) differently than higher level/executive tasks (like writing and thinking), so although you might not find it distracting to read while you eat, we all know it’s impossible to read a book and drive (and clearly not advisable). This is because the brain can’t successfully multitask when it comes to balancing those higher level tasks. NPR recently had an interesting research news piece on the myth of multitasking – “Think You're Multitasking? Think Again” describes multitasking as a process of shifting attention very quickly from one task to the next, which we might think is multitasking, but really, we’re just deceiving ourselves.

I don’t know about you, but on my next resume update, I fully intend to replace “ability to multitask in a results-driven environment” with something along the lines of “fully capable of differentiating between when it makes sense to multitask and when it’s just stupid, and furthermore (this part is important), being able to exert the necessary willpower required to fully concentrate on the task at hand, and only that task, for as long as it shall require.” The ability to fully concentrate on one important task sans IMs, YouTube videos and other “background” noise is especially necessary with all the electronic gadgets that surround us at work and in our everyday lives. Gen Y employees in particular have been “multitasking” since 3rd grade, and this approach alone can hinder their ability to be successful at work. Prioritizing and making deadlines are crucial, but turning out a superior product requires full concentration and don’t kid yourself, your boss can tell when you’ve put all your energy into your work.

According to developmental molecular biologist and research consultant Dr. John Medina, the rate of error when multitasking is 50% and, multitasking doubles the time it takes you to complete that task. For the best evidence, try it yourself – a work day without multitasking. Allocate your time and work on tasks one at a time. Don’t worry, no one will know the difference at the end of the day except you – you might even have extra energy to spend at the gym or make dinner from scratch. Think about it – if it took only five minutes to really concentrate on an email response you’re crafting, (1) you would have gotten it done while only having to think about it once, not five different times throughout the day, (2) the quality of your response would have been better, and (3) you would feel a sense of accomplishment (be it a small one) as opposed to trying not to let this task fall off your radar the entire day, which takes up precious brain power (and face it, we could all use a little extra mental mojo).

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Jessica McKenzie, MS published on October 4, 2008 1:11 PM.

Shifting Who Conforms to Whom? was the previous entry in this blog.

Are Wellness Programs Working? is the next entry in this blog.

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