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Mental athletes in the boardroom – Is multitasking good or bad

Mental athletes in the boardroom – Is multitasking good or bad

In part six of this series Susanne Rix discusses the pros and cons of multitasking. It seems everyone is doing it:  Sending emails during meetings, texting while walking, talking on the phone while reading emails.

Multitasking is good right? Wrong. The value of multitasking has been revealed as a myth.  Research shows that it is not only an inefficient use of your mental capacity, it can even have detrimental effects on your health and relationships.

Recent neuroscience research reveals that the brain doesn’t actually do the tasks simultaneously – it switches tasks.  The stop/start/stop process does not save time as we hope – it costs time, it’s less efficient, it stops us thinking deeply, it causes more mistakes and saps our mental and physical energy.

Moving back and forth between different tasks means you constantly have to rethink as you switch gears and are never able to get fully into ‘the zone’ for any activity.  It keeps you at a superficial level constantly.

Some of the recent research into multi-tasking reveals:

Tasks take longer.  Drivers take longer to reach their destination when talking on the phone

Productivity suffers. Switching tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity.

It can introduce errors – especially if one or more of the tasks require critical thinking

Employees with a constant access to office email stayed in constant ‘high alert’ with higher heart rates than those without constant email access.

Inattentional blindness – 75% of college students who walked across campus while talking on the phone did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby.

Memory can suffer. When researchers asked participants to study one scene then changed to a different image, participants found it difficult disengaging from the second picture and remembering details about the first.

Relationships can suffer.  Even having a mobile phone nearby during personal conversations has been shown to cause friction and trust issues.

It inhibits creative problem solving. Studies show that constantly switching tasks keeps the problem solving capacity at a superficial level, never allowing you to think deeply and making it harder to generate spontaneous ‘a ha’ moments. Since the brain can only focus deeply on one task at a time, constantly switching tasks can cause the brain to lose the capacity for deep thinking altogether.

It can be dangerous. Authorities claim texting or talking on the phone while driving is as dangerous as drink driving. A study showed one in five teenagers who went to emergency after being hit by a car while walking admitted they were using a smartphone at the time of the accident.

So how do we manage multi-tasking in our fast paced workplaces?

Do things in focused batches.  Acknowledge different tasks require different mindsets and meetings require attention to other people in the room – not to the smartphone or computer screen.  Emails require focus, concentration, communication and problem solving. Planning and goal setting require creativity, imagination and vision.  Looking busy with a phone to the ear and fingers on a keyboard does not mean productivity or efficiency.

For the HR professional this means a shift in culture to one with a mindset that allows people to focus on one thing at a time. Where smart phones and computers are banned from meetings. Where there is training in understanding how the brain actually functions during different tasks and how to trigger more effective problem solving and creativity. Where mindfulness and meditation training are part of productivity improvement programs.

It is far more complex than simple time management.  If your people are employed for the ability to think and communicate clearly they need to understand how that actually happens.  Neuroscience belongs in every management training program.



Susanne Rix is a Behavioural Scientist, and author of Superworking:How to Achieve Peak Performance without stress.

Susanne and her team conduct Peak Performance programs for organizations. Individuals consistently report they are achieving more, in less time and with less stress.Organisations report higher staff retention rates, lower absenteeism and improved team cohesion.

Phone +61 2 47574231 or contact this publication for email connection.
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