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Multitasking is a myth June 16, 2015

Posted by Edwin Ritter in career, Project Management.
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All employers want it and every employee attests they can do it. Cognitive neuroscientists will tell you that multitasking is not possible. A myth, popular misconception and a white lie employers and employees accept while knowing it is a fallacy. In fact, studies reveal that only 2% of people can effectively multitask.

multitaskingI understand how multitasking is a desirable trait to have. But, the reality is very few have this ability. Studies also have proved that you are less effective doing multiple tasks versus being singly focused. So, let’s agree to ban multitask as a phrase from job descriptions and be realistic about how to get work done. Having the ability to work on many things in different phases is not multitasking. It is just that – working on many things concurrently. Being able to prioritize is a highly desirable skill to make effective decisions. Maybe that is the better term – prioritization.

Recently, I read about how the mind works and how we organize information. Turns out that we have a system for what grabs our attention. We process information using an attentional system and it has four parts.

Attentional System

1) Default mode – fluid and non-linear thinking (let the mind wander). This is the default mode when the brain is resting. Leads to the creative state. In this mode, thoughts are inward to desires, feelings, planning, daydreaming. While in this mode, we feel refreshed after a nap or vacation.

2) Central Executive mode – stay on task; focused. This is the other dominant mode for attention. Opposite of the default mode; they are yin-yang and exclusive. When one mode is active, the other is not. Writing reports, problem solving, painting are examples while in this mode.

3) Insula – is the ‘switch’ between the default and central executive. Enables shift from one mode to another. A neural switchboard. If the brain switches too often it can lead to dizziness with information overload as a result.

4) Attention Filter – What grabs our attention and causes a change in focus from what is in the sub-concious.

Perils of MutitaskingOur brains have a finite capacity to process information. We can keep about 4-6 things in mind at once. Keeping track of too many things requires switching and leads to fatigue. All that switching takes energy, can cause information overload and leads to mistakes or otherwise being unproductive.

Along with information overload, our attention filter has a blind spot. Things that we need to pay attention to; details that impact our decisions can be easily missed. A famous example of the blind spot and selection attention involves a group of people passing a basketball. Clink on the link and watch the selective attention video if you have not seen it before. I’ll wait. See what I mean?

This is formally known as Attentional Resource Theory. When we are focused on a specific thing, it uses most, if not all or our ability to process information. Cognitive studies prove the theory and explain why performance is hampered when multitasking.

We know the brain is a very complex instrument. We continue to learn how it works and these new learnings on how we manage information and make decisions will shape how work is organized, performed and how productive (see post on Capacity & spinning plates) any single person can be.

I admit to not being a multitasker. Not part of the 2% who can. But, I am good at setting and keeping priority to make decisions and I know my capacity.

What techniques do you use to manage your workload? Comments invited, as always.

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