You Can’t Multitask, So Stop It

Jan 07, 2014 1 Min Read
Evelyn Teh looking confused as she tries to multitask
Source:Leaderonomics Archives: Evelyn in distress
Multitask To Your Peril

Although it may stroke your ego to say you can multitask, the reality is that we can’t. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT says that we’re not doing multiple things at one time when we “multitask”. Instead, we’re rapidly shifting our focus from one thing to another.

It’s like when you’re working on a word search looking for the words CATASTROPHE, ENVIRONMENT, SKY and GALE. As you scan through the letters, your brain would be overwhelmed if you tried to spot all four words simultaneously.

Instead, you look for one word at a time, maybe switching for the word you’re looking for as you go along. Importantly, it’s a switch-back-and-forth mechanism, not an all-at-once.

Here are two reasons why you should limit multitasking or rapid focus-shifting:

1. Your working memory has limited capacity

Our short-term working memory, which holds all that we’re currently aware and conscious of, can only store two to four pieces of information at once.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains and former executive editor of Harvard Business Review points out how the 1956 paper TheMagical Number Seven, which posited our ability to store seven pieces of information in our working memory at once was an overestimation.

Think of your working memory like a plate with limited space. When something new is introduced onto the plate, something currently on it must go out to make room for the new piece of information.

When your brain is bombarded with information, it gets overloaded and information must move in and out of your working memory quickly.

“When that happens, you’re never paying close attention to anything. You’re never focusing on one thing for an extended period of time,” says Carr.

When the brain is processing different information very rapidly, it impacts our ability to chew on the information and even weed out irrelevant or incorrect data. It doesn’t get registered into long-term memory either.

This lack of sustained meditation on one thing inevitably affects our ability to learn, which brings us to the next point.

2. “Multitasking” impedes your ability to focus, learn and be creative

A 2009 study by Stanford researcher Clifford Nass compared the performance of chronic multitaskers with others at a series of tasks. Nass found that chronic multitaskers use their brain less effectively.

Interestingly, if we multitask all the time, Nass’ research shows that there are long-term changes to our brain. It becomes accustomed to jumping back and forth between information, so much so, that it becomes very difficult for you to remain focused and concentrate on any one thing.

If you’re not chewing on information and giving it time to birth new thoughts in your mind, then your creativity will be limited too.

Here are some practical things you can do to reduce multitasking at work:

· The 20-minute rule – Try researcher Clifford Nass’ 20-minute rule. Focus on one task for 20 minutes before you switch to another. Avoid switching tasks from minute to minute.

· Limit emailing- Controlling your access to emails will reduce stress, enable you to focus more, and reduce the frequency at which you change screens. So says a University of Irvine study by Gloria Mark and Stephen Voida.

· Have bursts of attention with breaks in between- Breaks actually help increase productivity. A study by the National University of Singapore found that employees who never go online during work are less effective than those who spend time up to 20% of their time browsing the Internet.

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Lily Cheah is a former head of Enterprise at Leaderonomics. Prior to that role, she was editor of www.leaderonomics.com (Ldotcom) and also was part of a special projects team in Leaderonomics. She believes that small details play a big part in huge successes, including always explaining “why”. She is a senior leader in HR today.

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