Are you muddled up in multi-tasking?

There can be many distractions and a lot of tasks to juggle in the modern workplace. But should those who define themselves as ‘multi-taskers’ be praised or performance-managed? 

It’s been a busy time in the Ai Group Communications team of late. Two weeks ago, we launched our brand new website.

It’s a great improvement on the old site, with a particular emphasis on usability and responsiveness – including the introduction of a live online chat facility, which gives you an immediate line straight to our team. Yes – we’re here waiting to take your enquiry!

For me personally, this has been both a pleasure and a challenge: a pleasure, because it’s been fun doing something completely different and coming into direct contact with members, who are a friendly bunch; and a challenge, because I’ve had to face up to a deficit I have long recognised in my own professional skillset: multi-tasking.

Quite simply, I need to focus. On one thing at a time. Preferably less.

But now, the online chat revolution is regularly diverting my attention. No sooner have I hit upon some insightful observations to share with readers in my latest Blog than the inspiration is whisked away by a little bell ringing in my computer. Once the chat question has been attended to, my blogging train of thought has often lost its way.

This predicament causes my wife no end of amusement. Despite her insistence that I make use of evenings in front of the television by also attending to the ironing, she delights in regaling friends with tales of my multi-tasking ineptitude. They, of course, believe their husbands are exactly the same…

As far as I’m concerned, however, it’s no laughing matter. And as I watch my son flitting between different screens and devices while doing his homework, slipping in a text message and a performance on either side of each maths question, it’s perfectly clear to me that my own struggle is a microcosm of the wider world’s distraction overload.

So, am I the only one failing to cope?

If the research is to be believed, the answer is a resounding no. And the people with the biggest problem may actually be those slightly irritating individuals who apparently thrive amidst a myriad of daily demands – the self-proclaimed masters of multi-tasking who see themselves as the personification of that old pearl of wisdom: “if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it”.

There could be something in that theory. But you might want to add the following qualifier: “unless you want it done properly”.

We’re all relatively accepting of the fact that multi-tasking takes its toll on our performance: our brains are literally designed to focus on one thing at a time and, while modern workplaces rarely afford us that luxury, such an approach tends to deliver the best results.

The problem is, when we multi-task, our brain isn’t actually able to focus on all those activities at once; it’s frantically switching back and forth between each activity, with every switch delivering a cost in terms of both time and performance.

Despite this, researchers at Stanford University hypothesised that well-practised multi-taskers would at least develop skills to confront this challenge: compared to hapless uni-taskers like me, they would be better at filtering information; they would be faster in switching between tasks; and their working memory would leave me in the dust.

But when they put 100 students through a series of tests aligned to these three abilities, their results came as a shock. “It turns out multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking.”

The heavy multi-taskers were found to be a lot worse at filtering irrelevant information compared to ‘single-taskers’, and they also performed significantly worse at switching between tasks.

“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” explained Stanford’s Professor Clifford Nass. “Everything distracts them.”

Researchers at the University of Utah subsequently expanded on these results, finding that people’s perceived multi-tasking ability was in fact negatively correlated with their actual multi-tasking ability.

“The findings suggest that people often engage in multi-tasking because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task.” Ouch!

Results such as these prompt a question of causality: are chronic multi-taskers born with an inability to concentrate or are they damaging their own cognitive capabilities by taking in so much all at once?

Either way, the signs aren’t good. Researchers at the University of Sussex compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (my son, take note) to MRI scans of their brains. In finding that heavy multi-taskers had less brain density in the ‘anterior cingulate cortex’ – the region responsible for cognitive and emotional control and empathy – the study’s authors delivered a sobering message:

“It is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”

This finding came in the wake of an earlier study conducted at the University of London, which found that multi-tasking with electronic media caused a temporary deficit in IQ greater than that caused by smoking marijuana or by losing a night’s sleep. A drop of 15 IQ-points for multi-tasking men reportedly lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child…

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but no 8-year-old child should be handling something as dangerous as an iron. I think I’d better concentrate on the television in the evenings from here on in, just to be safe.

Are you a committed multi-tasker or a sworn single-tasker? And do you equate a propensity for multi-tasking with productivity among the employees in your workforce? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

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Graham Turner is the former Editor of Ai Group's Industry magazine, which ceased publication in 2014. He now edits (and moderates) this Blog, together with Ai Group's weekly Email newsletter.

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