Thursday, October 24, 2013

Multitasking in the Workplace

Small steps to stronger productivity

By Laura Iles - Sr. Consultant, Integrated Insight

Study upon study has proven that multitasking is a myth.  According to the 2007 New York Times article “Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic” we can’t really multitask, it makes us less efficient, and it’s costing businesses money every day.  MRI scans from the University of Michigan established that “even simple tasks can overwhelm the brain when we try to do several at once.”  Yet, the ‘culture of busy’ persists. It’s a rapid-fire switching between disparate tasks, scanning emails while hearing every 3rd word from the phone call we’re taking or browsing a document on your computer in a meeting, pausing long enough to glance at the presentation slides every so often.  Multitasking stops our brain from saving new information into short-term memory. If we can’t save the new information, we forget the take-aways and end up spending more time reviewing later to catch up on what we missed. In today’s business environment it’s a challenge to break free from this cycle with smart phones, laptops or tablets following us on lunch breaks and into meetings  with the expectation that we are always available.

Yet even small changes can still make a difference in concentration, stress levels and productivity. Be willing to start small, and gradually build on your success:

Try scheduling blocks of uninterrupted time for project work. This is by no means a new idea, but often hard to implement in a meaningful way given it is rare there is ever just one project needing your immediate attention.  As challenging as it may be, even 30 minutes a day of dedicated focus on a priority task will help significantly. Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who studies multitasking in the workplace, states that after an interruption of a phone call or an email, “it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task.”  Repeat throughout the day, for each employee, and that’s a staggering amount of lost productivity.  Blocking time on your calendar for project work, similar to blocking time for meetings, can help. The key is to remember that although you can’t single-task all the time, even 30 minutes of deep focus can be more productive than 2 hours filled with interruptions.

Take a true lunch break. Allowing yourself time to relax and recharge your brain can mean the difference between a focused, productive afternoon and one where you perform at a subpar level.   Choosing quality over quantity attempting to leave your desk and smart phone to enjoy the company of your lunch-mates or read a good book - whatever energizes you – can help.

Take the lead on device-free meetings. You won’t be able to take away everyone’s smart phone but it’s likely you can champion the cause in one meeting. As a presenter, it is disheartening when more than a few in the audience are looking down in their laps, paying more attention to the email conversation than your presentation.  Not to mention lost time when topics have to be re-visited to keep everyone up to speed. Established culture is powerful but over the long run, change is possible. Leading by example is a good start. 

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