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June 1, 2010

The Death of Multitasking

In this post, Ann explores the little known evils of multitasking …

Prior to working at Blue Door Consulting, I would venture to say that I was somewhat of a multitasking genius. I could work on three time sensitive projects simultaneously and answer the phone while checking my email. That’s right; I believed I was so good at multitasking that the word may have even shown up on my resume a time or two.

Ann PadleyMy first day as a consultant at BDC, as I downloaded the time tracker widget to my desktop, I suddenly saw all my mad-multitasking skills fly right out the window. I was, after all, a consultant now and I needed to bill customers for hours worked. How on earth could I figure out what time to bill which client if I was working on three projects at once? I needed to streamline the way I worked. Little did I know at the time, but this was a change for the better.

In April, National Public Radio (NPR) aired a report on multitasking. They discussed a study by French researchers on the human brain’s two frontal lobes, the areas associated with goals and rewards. First, study volunteers were asked to perform just one task. Brain scans showed activity in both frontal lobes, suggesting that the two parts of the brain were working together to complete the task. When an additional task was added, the lobes divided the tasks and each pursued its own goal. Okay, multitasking might not be so bad- or is it? Upon introduction of a third task, one of the original goals actually disappeared from the brain! Not only that, but the volunteers slowed down and made considerably more mistakes on the two remaining tasks.

This got my attention.

In the following weeks, I ran across an article in Women’s Health magazine that suggested our brains could even consider sensory overload to be multitasking.

‘A relaxing bath, for example, might involve not just warm water, but also candles, background music, scented oils, a stack of magazines, and maybe something to sip while you soak. Just like that, all five senses are stimulated at once. (Even our downtime is busy!)’

The article explained it this way, ‘The brain is like a computer: if too many windows are open at once the whole system slows down.’

This explanation puts things into perspective. (It also explains why I have to close my eyes while I am in the middle of coming up with a great idea, but I digress.) So what can we do to ease our multitasking addiction and help our brains function at their fullest potential?

    • Create to-do lists and check the items off one-by-one. This will reduce the amount of time your brain spends thinking about what you have to do, and increase the time actually doing it!

 

    • Block your time. (This is a trick we use at BDC.) At the beginning of the week, block out time for the projects that you need to complete that week. Remember to set aside a block of time each day for reading and responding to emails. As new projects come up and priorities shift, just move your blocks of time around.

 

    • Leave a trail of breadcrumbs for your brain,’ suggests Sophie Leroy, Ph.D., ans assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. If you are working on project A and need to leave for a meeting for project B, jot down a note on where you left off. When you return to your desk, spend a couple of minutes processing the meeting and pick up on project A – right where you left off.

 

  • Complete your most important task first thing in the morning. When you finish, take a 2-3 minute break and complete your second most important task. Getting your most pressing tasks out of the way first thing in the morning leaves you time to work freely the rest of the day instead of fretting over what could already be done.

Wow, I wrote this entire blog post without checking my email- I am really making progress!