If I was to ask you to juggle some objects then most of you might respond as either being good or not good at juggling but would try to anyway. If I said the objects were chainsaws then very few (hopefully no one or unless you are the Amazing Johnathan!!!) would try it at all. And this is where juggling is a little bit like multitasking.
It seems the norm for us is to try to do multiple things at the same time in the fast paced connected society we live in today. You know the examples we might be guilty of like messaging while walking, watching TV during dinner, using the iPad while watching TV etc.
We generally behave like this because we don’t have enough time and we know we need to adapt to get by. But are we actually any good at this multitasking?
For small simple tasks we’re actually ok at it ie. walking and talking, listening to music while jogging. But the wheels rapidly fall off when we try and do different tasks that are a little bit more complex ie. like the myriad of tasks we try to do at the same time each day at work.
And the reason for this is quite simple - it comes back to our brain and how we are wired. Research found our brain is unable to process and understand different pieces of information and then put it fully into short-term memory. Then when information doesn't make it into short-term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory to be recalled later.
So instead of making us more productive (besides the small menial tasks requiring very little brainpower), multitasking actually makes us less productive due to the extra toll it puts on our brain. I demonstrate this in workshops where the audience participates in a small simple exercise showing productivity degradation by up to 25%.
Studies also found that we can only store between 5 – 9 things at a time in our working memory and that multitasking actually slows our brain by negatively influencing the retention of information over brief periods of time.
We often hear of elite sporting people talk about having moments when they were performing at their absolute best while “in the zone” – the time when the game slowed down, when everyone and everything around them appeared to be in slow motion and when they were fully engaged in what they were doing.
So why do we expect we can perform at our best when having our attention spread across a range of items?
I thought I was quite good at multitasking 10 years ago when I had a very demanding international role in the IT sector. I would frequently jump from 1 piece of work to the next but what I was actually good at was switching tasks and having multiple pieces of unfinished work. And this doesn't even touch on the mistakes made or the frustration of being busy but feeling unfulfilled when working like this. Does that sound familiar to your situation?
If you’re not quite convinced yet about our inability to multitask effectively then have you ever turned the radio down in your car while driving and looking for an address? That sums me up right there!!!
The good news is we don’t have to be a multitasking victim at work as there’s strategies / actions (like removing clutter, distractions, disorganisation etc) and choices we can make to eradicate this behaviour. You might be surprised about how much more work you will actually get done right first time.