Multitasking and Distractions

14 Jan

Do you pride yourself in being good at multitasking?  Guess what, research indicates you can’t do it very well!  When people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old. A University of London study found that constant emailing and texting reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test.

Multitasking isn’t a skill issue; it’s a brain design issue.  While you can hold several chunks of information in mind at once, you can’t perform more than one conscious process at a time without impacting accuracy or performance.

When it comes to conscious activities your brain works in a serial way – one thing after another.  Research by Harold Pashier found that people attempting to perform two basic tasks at once took twice as long. Practice did not change the results (you aren’t actually saving time!)

A second study by Pashier found when participants were asked to do one simple mental task and one simple physical task simultaneously their performance dropped by 20%.  When asked to do two tasks that required very simple cognitive ability, their performance dropped by 50%. So, you can’t look for your favorite pen and listen attentively at the same time, and thinking you can skim your email while participating on a conference call is a fallacy!

“No, I did not get that email.”  “What?  I didn’t agree to that on our call!” – Are you sure??

Get a load of this!  One study found that office distractions eat up an average 2.1 hours a day.  Another study found that employees spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted.  After an interruption, it takes 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all.  People switch activities every 3 minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone or working on a document.

Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task and they make up to 50% more errors. Any distraction, however small, diverts your attention.  It then takes effort to shift your attention back to where it was before the distraction, especially when a circuit is new or weak.

 Whether you are multitasking or being distracted by text, emails or calls, “always on” is not productive; it forces the brain to be on “alert” far too much.  This creates an artificial sense of constant crisis, which can cause the fight or flight system to kick in.

A few choices you might act on…

  • Catch yourself trying to do two things at once and slow down.
  • The only way to do two mental tasks quickly, if accuracy is important, is doing them one at a time.
  • Find ways to decrease external distractions.
  • Turn your phone OFF for a few hours each day!  No, the world will not stop twirling if your phone is off!
  • Read the full book report Your Brain At Work by David Rock.

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