Your Brain and Multitasking

Recent neuroscience research proves multitasking is a myth that can be harmful to your business!

The Myth

Do you believe you can multitask? Recent neuroscience research proves multitasking is a myth that can be harmful to your business!   

The human brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two tasks at the same time. Businesses praise multitasking and even create job descriptions that require employees to be able to “multitask”. However, research clearly shows that multitasking actually reduces productivity and increases mistakes. As John Medina writes in his book, Brain Rules, “taking your sequential brain into a multitasking environment can be like trying to put your right foot into your left shoe.”

Sure, we can do simple tasks like walking and talking at the same time, but when it comes to higher level, true multitasking, your brain just can’t do it. When you’re walking and talking, you can’t really pay attention to both tasks – this is why you will naturally pause your conversation as your feet negotiate steps or navigate around a pothole in the sidewalk – you need to pay attention to the walking so as not to fall over and hurt yourself. Your brain naturally focuses on tasks sequentially, one at a time.

The Illusion

So why do people swear they’re more productive when they multitask? Like many beliefs about business functions, it is an illusion!    

We have all seen the person working on his laptop with a cell phone awkwardly placed against his ear loudly conversing with the person on the other end, as his fingers peck away at an application on his laptop that probably has several windows open. If challenged, he’d probably say, “I get more work done when I do several things at the same time.” Sound like someone you know? Sound like you?

Because “multitasking” drains a lot of mental and physical energy, we feel like we’re productive – we worked hard and used energy so we must have produced a lot. Wrong. Just because we expend energy does not mean we are productive – it only creates and illusion of productivity.

Why Multitasking Damages Your Business

Studies show that a person who is attempting to multitask takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task and he or she makes up to 50 percent more mistakes. Therefore, a person working sequentially is 50% faster and up to 50% more accurate!    

Another illusion is that multitasking saves time. In fact, it consumes and wastes your time. What we call multitasking is really our brains attempting to switch our attention back and forth rapidly between tasks. But every time you switch your attention, your brain goes through a sequence of activities to refocus and adjust. These brain sequences might only take half a second, but when repeated many times per minute the wasted time adds up. In addition, we lose track of previous progress and find ourselves needing to “start over,” perhaps muttering things like, “Now where was I?” This process results in not only a waste of time but also an increase in mistakes, both of which can damage your business.

Steps to Increase Productivity    

So what should I do to increase productivity and accuracy?

  • Organize and prioritize your tasks in advance.
  • Become familiar with your natural rhythms and know what time of the day you have the most energy, mental and physical, and schedule tasks accordingly.
  • If possible, vary the sort of tasks you work on throughout the day – your brain functions better when it has variety.
  • Create interruption-free time zones during the day to work on selected tasks – this will greatly increase productivity.
  • Focus on one task at a time, complete it, then focus on the next task and repeat the process.
  • Acknowledge the satisfaction you feel after the completion of each task, no matter how small the task – this will reinforce sequential task completion.
  • Schedule times during the day when you will check your e-mail and voicemail – and be strict about only checking it during those designated times.
  • Turn off your e-mail notification, phone ringer, IM program, BlackBerry, etc. – distractions that can waste your time and give you an illusion of being productive and important.
  • Take “brain breaks” about once an hour. For example, stand up, stretch, and take a few slow deep breaths. Your brain will function better with movement and more oxygen.

Take Action

Perform the above actions for at least a week. Then check to see whether you are more productive and accurate in your work than when you “multitasked” – you will be!

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