Debunking the Myths about Multi-Tasking | Gary Rush, IAF CPF PDF Print E-mail

I teach “how to” be Facilitators and Collaborative Leaders.  A common question students ask me is how to handle people in face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings, and at work, who use their cell phones and/or tablets, insisting that they are “multi-tasking” yet paying attention.  I have listened to students tell me that women are better at multi-tasking than men.  I thought I’d explore this further.

 

Electronic “Multi-Tasking?”

 

There have been numerous studies by respected researchers about the effects of electronic juggling.  With the proliferation of smart phones, tablets and the self-inflicted need to be on top of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, email, etc., it seems that people feel the need to constantly “multi-task.”  This artificial urgency that has been created (emails and posts apparently need to be answered as soon as they are received) is hurting business because it drains resources from what is truly high-priority.  It also increases anxiety because people stress out when they don’t answer an email quickly enough.  One study at MIT showed that when people “multi-task”, their IQ drops by at least 10 points.  Another, at the University of London showed that electronic multi-tasking lowers your IQ by 15 points.  It also makes us feel more exhausted because the brain is constantly jumping from one topic to another.  Daniel Levitin wrote a compelling article for The Guardian, entitled, “Why the modern world is bad for your brain” (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/18/modern-world-bad-for-brain-daniel-j-levitin-organized-mind-information-overload) that discusses the physical and psychological problems with multi-tasking.

 

Whether in face-to-face meetings or virtual meetings, multi-tasking is really “multi-distracting”.  I don’t encourage it because it does affect meeting productivity and it is rude and disrespectful to others.  So, why do people tolerate it?  Students ask me, “How can we stop it?”  I begin meetings by setting norms – asking everyone to please put their cell phones and tablets away.  A properly conducted meeting moves along with little or no time for distractions and breaks are reasonably spaced giving people sufficient time to check and answer emails.  That ensures proper engagement from all participants.

 

Women are Better at “Multi-Tasking?”

 

This pre-dates the electronic age of multi-tasking.  Scientific studies have shown that, biologically, that is not true.  So how did the myth come about?  I believe it is not about gender – it is in the training.  In the past, women were raised to run the household, prepare the meals, and raise the family.  One cannot do that without multi-tasking.  A woman may be preparing dinner, talking on the phone, and dealing with a child all at once.  But today, I know men that do equally well – in the same environment.

 

I practice multi-tasking all the time (not Electronic Multi-Tasking – that I never do).  As a cook, I always have more than one thing going at the same time.  I might have a sauce simmering on the stove, be chopping vegetables for another dish, watching the oven, and even clean up as I go along.  I may have bread rising while I’m getting ingredients ready and answering the phone.  It’s not unusual to have three or four dishes being worked on at the same time.  It is a bit chaotic – it’s in the training.  Of course, using timers so things don’t over-cook and planning lists to ensure that I don’t forget something helps.

 

So…

 

Multi-tasking doesn’t require the kind of attention that “electronic multi-tasking” does.  The mental intensity is different.  When I multi-task while cooking, I feel good because I accomplished all that I planned.  I don’t get the artificial sense of urgency that electronic multi-tasking creates because proper prioritizing is built into effective multi-tasking.  Things get done when they are supposed to get done

If you want to learn how to multi-task – cook.  Don’t “electronically multi-task”; it hurts your ability to do good work.  When in meetings, ask others to put their cell phones and tablets away – the world will wait.  Be good to your brain, stop the electronic multi-distracting.