Attempting Too Many Things at Once

by Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC

In our current era of multi-taskers, concentration and focus are underrated. A magnifying glass held up at the correct angle to the sun will quicky burn a whole through a piece of paper. At the same time, no matter how much sun shines through your office window onto your desk, none of those long and tedious memos are going to catch on fire. The lack of combustibility has nothing to do with the way the manufacturer engineered this flat piece of glass.

Multi-tasking is occasionally helpful and seemingly satisfying but, along with the shower of information and communication overload, represents a paradoxical impediment to getting things done. Let’s see why.

Faster and Less Attentive

The term multi-tasking evolved from the computer industry, the early mainframe computers designed with parallel processes is perhaps the prime example of automated multi-tasking.

In many respects, the computer has accelerated our inattentiveness. Personal computers achieved critical mass in 1981 with the introduction of the Apple Computer designed as an alternative to the IBM PC. The affordable technology enabled common folk to engage in sequential kinds of activities and elevated our propensity to become task-switchers. Then for a host of reasons, and some so bizarre that they defy description, over the next 25 years we began to emulate our computers. We multi-tasked while they multi-tasked.

Today, with the typical office professional sending or receiving more than 200 messages a day, counting all forms of communication, and all of them coming and going at shorter intervals, a generation of career professionals are being driven virtually to distraction. A number of the messages are fleeting, the meaning often unclear, and the result a listless and confused workforce.

Against the back drop of information and communication overload, ever-advancing technology, and more choices than anyone needs or even wants, seemingly, an entire workforce generation has been taught to multi-task as if this is the way it has always been, needs to be, and always will be.

Continuous Partial Attention

Multitasking has become a norm giving rise to “continuous partial attention,” where nothing gets your true and undivided focus, and everything is homogenized to the point of carrying nearly equal weight.

We offer our attention here, there, and then somewhere else. Like a one-man band, we get our strokes from strumming the guitar, tapping our foot, and blowing on the harmonica. We equate accomplishment with flapping our wings, stirring up a lot of commotion, and making a lot of noise. We can barely tolerate stillness. For many, silence doesn’t appear to be golden, it seems more like a dark space, lacking productivity, that can yield nothing useful. Undivided attention is a term that has fallen out of popular use.

Generally, we feel guilty if we don’t multi-task! We contemplate our increasing workloads and responsibilities and how they are subject to continual shifts, and justify multi-tasking as a valid response to a world of flux.

Despite the temptation to do otherwise, focusing on the task at hand is vital to getting things done. Whether there’s a handful of tasks confronting you, or ideally only one, give all your time, attention, energy, focus, concentration, effort, and all that good stuff to the task at hand, and then turn to what’s next.

Over-employed, and Undesired

It’s likely that people have always sought to handle many things simultaneously, stretching as far back as cave dwellers. Their multi-tasking effort probably seemed crude by comparison. Someday, somewhere, someone may discover that we are hardwired to continuously attempt to economize our use of time.

Our age old “flight or fight” response to perceived stressors in the environment works well, at intermittent times. The small jolts of concentrated energy and vigilance helps us to safeguard our selves, our loved ones, and our possessions. As a species however, we are not wired to effectively handle continuous streams of two major stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — on a daily basis.

Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., director of the neuroendocrinology lab at Rockefeller University, observes that while we can apparently weather stresses and rapid hormonal changes in the short term, about 3 to 15 days, soon thereafter chronic stress begins to ensue. The result is a weakened immune system, aggression, anxiety and a decrease in brain functioning which results in burnout. Dangerously high levels of cortisol can result in poor sleep patterns and insulin resistance which can open the door to bad eating habits and weight gain.

More Errors, Lingering Effects

Multi-tasking seemingly enables one to achieve time-saving benefits, but does it? While some people remain relatively unscathed by multi-tasking and can get as much done in the course of the workday, most people suffer in ways they don’t even understand.

Rather than increasing their productivity, multi-tasking diminishes it. They make more mistakes. They leave too many things undone. Their quality of work is not what it could be. And the list of potential hazards of multi-tasking is beginning to grow. Are you a victim to any of the following:

* Gaps in short-term memory?

* Loss of concentration?

* Problems communicating with co-workers?

* Lapses in attentiveness?

* Stress symptoms such as shortness of breath?

When multi-tasking, sometimes your brain can go into a crash mode. This is characterized by not being able to remember what you just said or did, or what you’re going to do next! This has been termed “having a senior moment,” but it’s no joke and it doesn’t only happen to seniors.

Professor David Meyer at the University of Michigan has established a link between chronic high-stress, multi-tasking and loss of short-term memory. “There is scientific evidence that multi-tasking is extremely hard for someone to do, and sometimes impossible,” he says. Also, the time lost switching between tasks tends to increase the perceived complexity of the tasks and often results in making a person less efficient than if he had chosen to focus on one task or project at time.

Continually Kidding Ourselves

The most difficult type of multi-tasking occurs when you try to engage the same area of the brain. You run into this all the time, people who are on the phone who are also surfing the net, listening to the radio, or in earshot of someone in the next room. Whether you’re attempting to handle conflicting visual-processing tasks or conflicting auditory-processing tasks, the net result is you’re not going to handle either task as well as you would handle each individually.

Marcel Just Ph.D., co-director of Carnegie-Melon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, conducted a study in which he asked participants to listen to sentences while comparing two rotating objects. These tasks draw on different areas of the brain, yet participants’ ability to engage in visual processing, comparing the two rotating objects, dropped by 29%.

Participants’ capabilities for auditory processing, listening to the sentence, dropped by 53% when engaged in this mild multi-tasking test. Dr. Just says that while we certainly can do more than one thing at a time “we are kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without cost.”

Also, research conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health confirms that when the brain has to juggle several tasks at once or in rapid succession, it has to overcome “inhibitions” that it put in place to cease doing the task to begin with. It’s as if the brain is taking its foot off the break.

Focus and concentration will be your keys for getting things done. Multi-tasking, as it is popularly understood and practiced, is not your answer. It is expensive in terms of the level of stress induced and the rise in errors and, hence, can actually hamper productivity.

Jeff Davidson is “The Work-Life Balance Expert®” and the leading personal brand in speaking, writing, and reflecting on work-life balance issues. He’s spoken to Fortune 50 companies such as IBM, Cardinal Health Group, and Lockheed; and to American Express and Westinghouse. He wrote Simpler Living, Breathing Space, and Dial it Down–Live It Up, among 65 other books. Visit http://www.BreathingSpace.com

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