Published on Forbes.com
Interconnectedness, ease of communication and accessibility have been practical byproducts of technology in the workplace since the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. The capability to retrieve, organize and present information has shattered the notion of what was once considered to be optimum productivity. With all of this power at an employee’s fingertips, the work floor of every organization should be a paradigm of efficiency and output.
But then your employee is bombarded with six emails, a constantly buzzing cell phone, a voicemail, meeting requests and social media notifications all within a five-minute period. As an employee who wants to see their organization succeed, they will attempt to address multiple problems at once to save time. An employee competes to match the speed and accuracy of a computer -- a contest that will end with only one winner.
In the chaos that can sometimes be a modern office, can an employee be blamed for trying to address so many issues at once? Multitasking has become an unofficial necessity for the vast majority of job descriptions, with many interviewers explicitly stating its importance to a candidate. While it would be impossible to eliminate the practice from an organization entirely, there are valid arguments and research that suggest a different approach.
In a 2016 study by Dr. Melina Uncapher, results showed those who chronically multitask across different media forms, such as cell phones, work phones, desktops and laptops, exhibited more weakness in both working memory and long-term memory. Not only can multitasking affect you, but it can hurt those around you. When tested, students who multitasked on their laptops during a lecture scored an average of 17% lower than their peers who did not multitask.
The list of relevant research goes on, but it is clear that there is an issue with how we operate when it comes to balancing tasks and weighing their importance. Our work is vital to us, and while we want to see our organizations succeed, certain truths need to be understood by leaders before that can happen on a consistent basis:
No one is performing at their highest possible level when they are trying to multitask.
It is perfectly acceptable to work on one project, focus, and then move on to the next project.
I know many supervisors likely just rolled their eyes at those points because we do not operate in a culture that is relaxed when it comes to deadlines. It would be optimal to have all of the time in the world to finish each of our current projects, but that seems to be an unlikely future for the workplace. As I wrote earlier, no one is immune to multitasking, and it is a necessity to succeed in most industries.
What is possible, though, is to be aware of the effect it can have on your performance and to take steps to mitigate the complications that accompany multitaskers.
1. Find a quiet, undisturbed space in your office when you need to use full concentration.
Many offices are throwing out cubicle walls in favor of the “open concept” that has become popular throughout multiple industries. While the plan enhances collaboration between employees, there are much more external stimuli that can pull you into multitasking and out of focus. Find a space to call your own for a short time, or use some headphones with classical or non-lyrical music to block out some distractions.
2. Get up and move.
It seems counterintuitive that leaving your desk could help your productivity and eliminate the adverse effects of multitasking. A study led by professor Alejandro Lleras at the University of Illinois found that the concentration decreases throughout a 50-minute period of working on a task. To make fewer mistakes and increase motivation, leave your work area for 10-15 minutes to recharge.
3. When trying to focus, put your cell phone in a drawer and forward calls to your work phone.
Maybe you are currently reading an article from your smartphone, but even if you aren’t, it is a safe bet that it is within your reach. The smartphone, for all of its advanced capabilities, has added another dimension to the definition of multitasking. Watching videos, playing games, checking email or social media and use of the internet all act as interferences in our work lives.
4. Write out exactly what you need to do and follow the list in order.
When you get an email in the middle of a project, there is always a temptation to drop what you are doing and address the new issue. The Federal Aviation Administration, an organization that cannot function without multitasking, researched “goal shifting” and found that our efficiency decreases because of the switch between tasks, especially when tasks are unfamiliar. A new set of rules for the new task must be processed, while the old set of rules must be forgotten or highly modified.
The above rule points out a severe flaw in our understanding of the concept of multitasking. When we engage in it, we are not completing multiple tasks at once -- we are subconsciously switching between tasks as quickly as we can, which negatively affects all of us in some capacity. It is not something that can be eradicated from the workplace, but leaders who are managing a team can understand that, sometimes, less can be more.