Multi Tasking

Image Tavakoli

Image Tavakoli

As a small and medium business owner do you find yourself multi-tasking? Your answer would probably be an emphatic YES. And you would be part of a growing tribe of humanity that have, over the last decade or so, have become manic slaves to this concept of multi-tasking. Not only at the workplace but also in their personal lives.

How many of you find yourself watching television while trying to scan the headlines in the newspaper, quickly replying to text messages on your cell phone and probably talking on the land-line at the same time….sounds familiar? As a business owner, how often have you tried to take a customer call while signing cheques, even while trying to give a host of other instructions to your employees.

You mistakenly believe that this is what makes you successful – the ability to process information from multiple sources at the same time.

ch-titlepageIn one of his many letters the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his son in the 1740s’,  he emphatically stated, “there is time enough for everything in the course of day, if you do but one thing at a time, but there is not enough time in the year, if you will do two things at a time”.

In modern times Earl Chesterfield’s advice has been thrown out of the window. Multi-tasking, a word that for decades used to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers is now a de-rigueur word today’s world where hurry, bustle and agitation have become a regular way of life. It is now the shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible.

But in recent times, several studies have challenged the ethos of multi-tasking. In his book CrazyBusy (Ballantine Books, ISBN-10 0345482441), Dr Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts based psychiatrist, calls multi-tasking “a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously”.

Unfortunately, our brain is not equipped for multitasking activities that require brainpower. So, contrary to your mistaken belief, multi-tasking can actually be counterproductive and drag individual performance down.

In a recent article in the Forbes magazine on the same subject, it was pointed out that our short-term memories can store only between five and nine things at once. So, when you are trying to achieve two dissimilar tasks, each requiring some level of consideration and attention, multitasking falls apart.

Our brains are wiredOur brains our wired to keep one idea in our consciousness at a time. A Stanford University study has shown that trying to multi-task my impair your cognitive control. Researchers from Vanderbilt University have demonstrated that there is clear evidence of a “response selection bottleneck” that occurs when the brain is forced to respond to several stimuli at once. As a result of the task switch, the brain loses time to determine which task to perform. Every time you switch tasks the brain reboots thus forcing you to review your past work, leading to inefficiencies and this performance quality. You cannot do your work only in the “interstices of your mind wandering” with crumbs of attention rationed out to work among competing tasks.

Dr. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore wrote in their book that multi-tasking is less likely to retain information in working memory which can hinder problem solving and creativity. (Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life – Harvard Health Publications)

focusSo, however tempted you are to do so (and you will be if you are a typical hands-on business owner) try to segregate the various activities into distinct compartments and don’t let one interfere with the other. Your ability to focus on one task on hand at a time would go a long way in getting your business efficient, creative and more productive.

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5 Responses to Multi Tasking

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  4. Ananth Koovappady says:

    Mike, you raise a valid point. In the fast and furious world of today sometimes old adages get left behind without realizing that a lot of them are still as valid today as they were years ago.

  5. Mike Boyd says:

    It’s interesting how a “new direction” mau not lead us to a new place. But will instead lead us back to where we started with a different perspective. Perhaps the new perspective here is another old adage …. plan your work and work your plan.

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