So, what is the multitasking myth? Attempting to complete multiple tasks at one time reduces the speed of completing each task while raising the chance for mistakes. If you assign your team multiple simultaneous tasks, you may be setting them up for failure. As long as your team is asked to multitask, they will be less efficient than they could be.
The Multitasking Myth
It’s not Multitasking it’s Task Switching
“Because the simultaneous processing of tasks requiring attention is so tough on the brain, often, when we multitask, the brain switches attention back and forth between activities. Such task-switching “comes at a cost in performance,” explains University of California, San Francisco neurologist Adam Gazzaley.” — BrainFacts — The Multitasking Mind
Multitasking, it’s Only a Word, Right?
Language influences how we think, words color our perception of the world, and phrases define our beliefs. Things which seem insignificant can have a tremendous impact. Consider this. What do you call the thing the sun does in the morning? Did you say sunrise? It doesn’t do that. The Earth spins, but since we use the word sunrise most of us picture the sun rising. So, what the heck does any of this have to do with multitasking? A lot. When we use the word multitasking we picture completing simultaneous actions, but just like sunrise, it’s not the truth.
“You’re not actually doing both activities at the same time; in fact, you’re now diverting your attention from one part of your brain to another part of your brain. That takes time, that takes resources, that takes brain cells. What happens on the other side of the brain is that you’re starting a brand new activity, so in fact you’re probably slower and not nearly as good at doing both activities at the same time.” CNN: Your Brain on Multitasking.
What does Multitasking Mean?
It may be a question of semantics. When the word multitasking is used to mean simultaneously doing two or more tasks, it’s usually being misused. There’s a huge difference between doing and managing multiple tasks. Is it sunrise or earthspin?
“Multitasking is a myth. The human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high level brain function at once. Low level functions like breathing and pumping blood aren’t considered in multitasking, only tasks you have to “think” about. What actually happens when you think you are multitasking is that you are rapidly switching between tasks.” Ergonomics Can People Really Multitask?
Set your Team up for Success
In the business world today most people are required to manage multiple tasks. A customer service rep may be asked to process a customer order, answer the phone, and check email for service requests all within a few minutes. Switching from task to task increases the chance for errors, slows the processes, wastes time, creates stress, and lowers IQ. We, as managers and leaders need to change the way we think about multitasking.
Stop calling it multitasking – Call it managing multiple tasks or task switching. The only way your people can manage multiple complicated tasks simultaneously is if they have two brains. I’m guessing most of them don’t. Because of the myth of multitasking many people believe they should be able to juggle multiple tasks and often feel inferior when they cannot. Take that away, stop calling it what it isn’t.
Reduce task switching – Teach your people that switching from task to task causes mistakes. Eliminate task switching wherever possible. Don’t pull people from one job to another unless it’s absolutely necessary. Encourage teammates to stay on tasks until completion. Discourage switching tasks when it’s unnecessary, such as checking email every few minutes.
Train people to mark their page – Like bookmarking a page in a book, train your team to “mark their page” when they do have to switch tasks. Rather than lead people to believe they should be able to switch back-and-forth without losing a beat, teach them they must concentrate on where they are in the process of any task they jump from, and be prepared to re-engage as smoothly as possible.
Quit creating task switching – Anytime you ask someone to stop an activity and move to another you’re causing work to slow down. Yes, sometimes it can’t be avoided, but too often the inefficiency of task switching isn’t considered. When it’s weighed against the loss of time and accuracy, it may be more cost effective to complete a task than to switch to that “urgent” task.
Learn to Manage Tasks
When you and your team develop the mindset of managing tasks rather than multitasking you will improve production, reduce waste, and create a less stressful work environment. Teach your team to prepare before switching tasks, to mark their place, and be ready to return. Train them to limit jumping from task to task and reward them for completing tasks without switching. Don’t force the problem on your team by switching them from task to task. And don’t buy into the multitasking myth.
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So, does your business have a management training plan? Because, if not, many organizations, large and small, use my book, The New Manager’s Workbook, a crash course in effective management, as the basis for their leadership development program. Check it out.