The Mind Muddle Of Multi-Tasking


Multi-Tasking. We’ve all used this term for doing more than one thing at a time. As in, “Look at me Ma… I’m doing the laundry and watching TV… I’m Multi-Tasking!” Most of us have even been told to do more of it, “For this year’s improvement goals… improve your Multi-Tasking, learn to Multi-Task better!” Sounds like a great idea… do a lot of things at the same time and get more done every day! And the great thing is that Multi-Tasking is FREE! That’s right, just by Multi-Tasking you can do more, get it done faster, improve your quality, and… ummm… it’s free. I mean it is free, isn’t it? We’re not actually sacrificing anything? Every  teenager and college student will tell you that they can talk on their cell phone, write email, IM friends, AND do their homework at the same time. It is just the grown-ups that have been left behind; maybe we’re just too 20th century? I wonder what the research says?

Interestingly, there’s not a lot of research on Multi-Tasking, and a lot of what’s out there is very recent, so there hasn’t been a lot of time to get rebuttals from the scientific community. Eyal Ophir was a the lead author of a study from Stanford on Multi-Tasking. The study found that multi-taskers performed poorly, produced low quality work and had poor memory retention of what they did.  According to Eyal, “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.” My own reading of the results is that multi-taskers are training their brans for a short attention span and easy distraction. Not the skills they thought they were getting. One of the other researchers, Clifford Nass summed it up this way, “Heavy multi-taskers are often extremely confident in their abilities, but there’s evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people.” Multi-tasking even makes you bad at… MULTI-TASKING! It’s just not the way that brains work. On a related note, back in the 50’s studies at Harvard indicated that the brain can handle a maximum of seven data points at the same time, before the brain started to break down. One of the practical results of these studies was standardizing telephone numbers with  seven digits, which everyone used to be able to do.  

A study at UCLA compared memory when subjects were and weren’t actively multi-tasking. When they multi-tasked they performed more poorly at memory tests, and what little they did remember was more difficult to use in a new context. One of the study’s researchers (Russell Poldrack) concluded that some multi-tasking can work together (listening to music while exercising), but when you multi-task while learning (study, on the job training, etc.) the part of the brain that processes the learning and the part that stores the result… shifts. Different structures are used, resulting in greater memory loss over a shorter time and a more limited ability to re-use and generalize what you’ve learned. In other words, even if you remember something you don’t “learn” in the traditional sense. This learning does not become a foundation for future learning.  

There is one area of multi-tasking research has been pretty active: the use of cell phones while driving. There are studies that tell us that using a cell phone while driving reduces your reaction time, judgment and general intelligence is so reduced that it looks like you’re “under the influence”. Multi-Tasking really does dumb you down. It’s a serious enough issue that states have passed laws to limit cell phone use while driving. At first laws focused on getting cell phones out of your hands (using hands free technology), but later research said that the real conflict was not about hand-eye dexterity, it was more a function of how the brain works. And when you’re using a cell phone, your brain just doesn’t work as well.

What does all this mean, and how does it apply to the workplace?  Think of all the individuals that work in your group. Is there a lot of on the job training? Are you finding that intelligent, high potential people are making mistakes that they shouldn’t? Do you send individuals that make mistakes back to training, but find they may seem to be cooperative but are not correcting their mistakes? Your organization may be suffering from the effects of Multi-Tasking!

  1. Multi-Tasking kills productivity. When we Multi-Task we think we are creating value, but we’re actually destroying it, producing low quality work… and not that much of it.  
  2. Some Multi-Tasking is less damaging. The studies are preliminary, but tasks requiring little concentration or learning can be effectively Multi-Tasked.  
  3. Multi-Tasking interferes with development. Multi-Tasking reduces the amount of newly learned knowledge and it reduces the flexibility and reusability of that knowledge for future learning, impacting development.
  4. Technology is the “gateway drug” of Multi-Tasking. Cell phones, email, instant messaging, social networks… are at the center of multi-tasking studies, because these are the technologies that interrupt us every few minutes.
  5. Get Fast, Fast relief:If your staff has become too distracted, if potential managers are not developing quickly enough, consider a few experiments in your operations. Select a small group and cut back on their Multi-Tasking for two weeks. At the end, ask them how they feel, if they think they work better. Measure their productivity and see if it backs their self-observations. Here are some options:
    1. Email: Does everyone’s email give them a ”pop-up” every time a new email arrives? Turn off the pop-up.
    2. IM: Do your workers get instant messages on their desktop? Turn this off.
    3. Internet access: While this doesn’t necessarily “ping” you when it’s off, the ease of answering questions through Google can create a “need” for searches that doesn’t really exist.
    4. Cell Phones and iPods: AH, the crack-cocaine of multi-tasking! Ask everyone to check in their phones during the day; they can change their voice mail asking people to call their supervisor in case of emergency. Some staff may not be able to comply due to a sick child, looking after relatives who are in town or some other issue.  If so, you can always substitute another candidate.

These are just some suggestions, but you may find out that after some initial anxiety about separation from their technology, workers are happier without all the distractions. The next time you have a staff meeting this might be a good item for a few minutes of discussion. Does everyone think they Multi-Task well? Are some people stressed by too much communication?  It’s with asking a few questions… at least that’s my Niccolls worth for today.

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2 Responses to The Mind Muddle Of Multi-Tasking

  1. john guapo says:

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