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Multi-Tasking: How’s That Working Out For You?

by Mark Guterman and Dan King

Photo of man multi-taskingMulti-tasking. The term originated in the computer engineering industry to refer the ability of a microprocessor to apparently process several tasks simultaneously. Multi-tasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to also simultaneously do as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible.

The highly-valued ability to multitask is written into job requirements, asked about in interviews, and touted on resumes as a “core” competency for success at work. But despite this common perception, the field of neuroscience is confirming what we all suspect: multi-tasking is dumbing us down and making us crazy.

Most research shows those who practice multi-tasking are less productive, both in the speed of completing tasks and the actual quality of their work. The brain simply doesn’t work that way. Because the human brain can only perform one task at a time, attempts at simultaneous processing create a “bottleneck” — and unlike your computer, you can’t just reboot it.

Multi-tasking — Screwing everything up simultaneously

Still, it has become clear that multi-tasking has been deemed a highly-valued skill for the 21st century workforce. Our society generally endorses multitasking, such as listening to music while exercising, but human interactions aren’t as easily co-processed. Thousands of years of evolution created human physical communication that puts broadband to shame in its ability to convey meaning and create bonds.

This long-term accomplishment is easily discarded when people turn to the quick, easy methods of communicating through technology. Have you ever tried speaking to a friend on the phone while writing an e-mail message at the same time? Our brains are physically incapable of focusing on both in the same moment. Thus, the friend is neglected. Through electronic communication, body language, tone of voice and expression are lost altogether.

That being said, given how everything is moving faster, it makes sense that we’d develop ways to speed up how we work. In his book, 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More, Stever Robbins cites multiple scientific studies that suggest successful multi-tasking doesn’t really exist. He does, however, believe that a rapid sequential focus can be developed and optimized.

This process, called Rapid Sequential Tasking, can help you to take on the challenges of working in the 21st century. The process begins with a plan of action, making distinctions between urgent and important tasks. These are often negotiated and decided upon with input from others. Then tasks are examined to identify interconnections that can help plan a sequence where each task serves as leverage for completion of subsequent tasks. This creates a clear line of sight and allows us to put complete attention on what’s right in front of us.

There are four operating principles that guide one’s plan, reminding us how to stay energized and focused, while making necessary adjustments along the way.

  1. Be mindful. Focus on what’s right in front of you, while staying aware of the context and dynamics surrounding the task.
  2. Keep moving. When stuck or facing unanticipated barriers and consequences, move on and come back later.
  3. “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” Borrowing from basketball-great John Wooden, speed is important, but haste is almost certain to have negative consequences.
  4. Learn, learn, learn. The key to solving current and future problems is to continuously develop our skills, tools, and methods.

Given the media-rich landscape of the Internet era, it is tempting to get into a habit of dwelling in a constant sea of information with too many choices, but as Psychologist Barry Schwartz notes, it’s having a negative effect on human happiness.

And there lies the problem: multi-tasking is making us unhappy. Is this a skill you want to cultivate for a meaningful worklife?


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