The ability to juggle lots of tasks is usually seen in a positive light. But is working on simultaneous projects always a good thing? Or are there better ways of working? We look at what multi-tasking really means and how you can help people manage a varied workload.
The first thing to know about multi-tasking is that it doesn’t really exist. We talk admiringly about colleagues juggling tasks. We watch with wonder as young people seem to post on social media, watch videos, send instant messages and do their homework at the same time. But neuroscience has proved that – however it looks – it’s not possible to do more than one thing at a time.
As Nancy K. Napier explains in Psychology Today, what’s actually happening when we seem to be working on tasks simultaneously is that we’re switching from task to task very quickly. And that’s not always the most effective way of doing things.
Multi-tasking and the brain
Every time we switch from one task to another, a stop-start process goes on in the brain. When we’re looking at ways to stay organized at work, it’s important to understand what that process involves.
In order to switch tasks, the brain has to do several things. It must:
- choose to switch tasks
- switch off the cognitive rules of the old task
- switch on the cognitive rules of the new task
Although this takes only a few fractions of a second, it’s time that can be crucial in some tasks – especially complex or unfamiliar ones. An obvious example is of a driver using a cell phone when changing lanes but the same applies when trying to listen to a presentation when you’re reading emails on your laptop.
Efficiency and productivity
Psychologists researching multi-tasking have come to the conclusion that trying to work on tasks simultaneously isn’t very efficient. The time and cognitive loads it involves are too great, In fact, estimates suggest that shifting between tasks can reduce productivity by as much as 40%. What’s more, researchers have found that the attention spans of multitaskers are lower than those who do one thing at a time.
Better ways of working
So, with the possible productivity and efficiency costs in mind, should you be asking employees to multi-task? Or are there better ways to stay organized at work?
You may find that giving employees sufficient time and opportunity to complete a task before moving on to the next one will help get things done more efficiently. Providing them with tools that minimize cognitive load may also help. Platforms like Workplace by Facebook that easily integrates with the other tools you use every day can help avoid the distraction of switching from one platform to another.
Email can also be a huge distraction and many messages employees receive aren’t relevant to what they’re doing. Using groups in Workplace can help ensure employees only have to deal with messages related to the task at hand.
Finally, you can set an example yourself. If employees see you wholeheartedly giving attention to your own tasks, they may well follow suit.