Doing just one thing at a time often seems like a luxury we can’t afford. Multi-tasking appears to be the answer when we are looking at a long list of things we need to accomplish. Indeed, multi-taskers are frequently hailed as productivity supremos as they whip through emails, while listening to a webinar and simultaneously supervising homework. But thinking is changing, as the benefits of a single focus become increasingly clear.
It is a fallacy that multi-taskers are highly effective. Research shows that our brains aren’t very good at handling a number of things at once. It seems that 98 per cent of the population don’t multi-task very well. As our focus moves back and forth all the time, our brain has to keep readjusting to what it needs to do next and this isn’t efficient. The shift in our attention causes us to get distracted and this slows our thinking down, impairing cognitive ability – a phenomenon termed ‘attention residue’.
Research also shows that multitasking lowers your IQ. A study at the University of London found that participants who multi-tasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they'd expect if they had stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multi-tasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an eight-year-old child.
And it’s not just our IQ that is affected. Some researchers, such as Meyer, Evans and Rubenstein, suggest that multi-tasking reduces productivity by up to 40 per cent. Stanford University researcher, Clifford Nass, found heavy multi-taskers fared worse at distinguishing relevant information from irrelevant details.
Multi-tasking is also pretty stressful – it usually feels quite frantic and overwhelming. So, how can businesses help their people to overcome the need for multi-tasking?
- Actively assess whether each meeting is necessary or something you are just doing as a default. Could the topic be better handled via email or a team channel? Is there a need to bring people together to discuss this issue? By reducing the number of meetings, you are giving employees more flexibility in structuring their day and freeing up more time to do focused work and reduce ‘meeting fatigue’.
- Cultivate a culture where employees are able to put aside ‘focus time’. Chunks of time, preferably at least two hours long, where people can get deeper into important and complex tasks. According to Clockwise: ‘It’s in those periods that most workers get the majority of their real work done’.
- Ensure breaks are encouraged, it is too easy to stay seated at a desk for hours. As Dr Donohue, founder of The Digital Wellness Centre, states: “You need to make a quiet space in your day to allow your brain to distil the constant flow of information. We all have ideas; the key is giving our brains some time and space to form them.”
It is also important that you provide your people with technology that helps to simplify their lives rather than complicating it further. There are too many instances when it creates obstacles, complications and countless distractions. This can leave employees in a constant state of ineffective multi-tasking as more and more apps are layered on top of each other and the notifications or alerts keep coming.
Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index states: “Amid the race to stay connected across tools, workers switch between 10 apps 25 times per day – fragmenting communication and reducing efficiency.” At a time where our new ‘remote culture’ means we have a greater reliance on technology and are spending more time online, how can we ensure technology is working for us, rather than the other way round?
The recent acceleration of digital transformation – five years of Cloud adoption squeezed into a few months – has enabled organisations to deliver effective communication channels, real-time information, streamlined online processes and powerful automation. Eliminating many manual or monotonous tasks has reduced mundane interruptions – as well as the risk of errors. This has given people increased space to focus, simplify and spend more time on value-add activities that are interesting and rewarding.
Don’t let your employees get overwhelmed by the complexities of complicated technology or distracted by unnecessary notifications and prompts. Remove barriers and blockers like multiple sign-ons, personalise software so it works hard for each individual and empower your people to get on with doing what delivers real value to your business and its customers.