Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Multitasking: Strategies to better manage your tasks
I, like most of my peers, have my cell phone beside me so I can respond to texts while I am researching this topic for my graduate-level paper, simultaneously monitoring my 4 email addresses and periodically adding to a powerpoint presentation for my next consulting assignment. I am passionate about what I do and, in living this passion, I am a moderate multitasker surrounded by technologies. In fact, because I multitask regularly, I have reached a level of proficiency. Or have I?
According to the PBS Frontline film Digital Nation, the plethora of multimedia inputs and outputs is “dumbing down the world”. In this paper, I examine the role multitasking plays in the concept of tapping human capital by engaging employees and individuals to live their passion as, for example, Google strives to do with their 20% rule.
The researchers and scientists whom I site in this paper are fairly consistent in their negative views on the topic of multitasking, described as the “performance of multiple tasks in a relatively short time period, with shifts in attention among the tasks” (Oberlander et al, 2007). Due to this commonly-held position about both the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of multitasking, I conclude this paper with a few strategies on how to multitask to enhance productivity, although some may argue that productive multitasking is not even possible considering the brain’s capability.
How our brain processes multiple tasks
In considering how our brain processes multiple tasks, we first turn our study to the “attentional spotlight”, or Broadband Area 10 portion of the brain which houses the sequential arousal system, and, cannot multitask (Medina, 2008). This scientific reality, along with various other findings, has lead to state-based laws banning the driving of a car while talking on a cell phone, as it has been proven that driving while on a cell phone reduces the reaction time to the equivalent of driving while legally drunk (.08 blood alcohol content).
Further to this, Jack King, Director of TCU’s Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence has documented neurologic “brown outs” during multitasking where the brain loses some of its computing power, creating surface learning in which the brain attempts to only understand procedures, numbers and facts without synthesizing it into deeper learning and understanding. In fact, “power” multitaskers processing five or more inputs at once (cell, IM, text, email, social media, etc.) are consistently more susceptible to interference from irrelevant stimuli, such as the random text message from a friend or pursuing a random thought for trivial purposes while abandoning the central project that brought them to that data. These same “power” multitaskers take more time to break from their current task and divert to the other as compared to light to moderate multitaskers managing 3 or less tasks simultaneously (Saunders, 2009).
This synthesis of input required for deep learning an understanding is predicated by “down time”—a chunk of time when the brain is unoccupied and free to associate as it will. Only in this state is the brain able to fully process the patterns of events and data in a way that seems to create persistent memory, make connections between ideas, and even develop the sense of self. In fact, researchers go so far as to say “downtime to the brain is what sleep is to the body” (Richtel, 2010). This downtime is not achieved often, as our habit of pulling in the data deluge, the continual checking of our iPhones for the rare urgent and important email, the sense of disconnect we feel when we haven’t checked our FaceBook account recently all prevent us from controlling our time and allocating ourselves the much-needed downtime that our deep thinking requires.
As referred to above, regular sleep cycles are also linked to higher success in multitasking. The longer we work in a sleep deprived state, defined as 5 hours or less per night, the lower our ability to multitask and subsequent higher rate of error (Haavisto et al, 2010).
Multitasking in learning environment
Consider that the average internet user is subjected to 3000 commercial messages in a day. Add to that statistic the average U.S. child is exposed to digital media about 50 hours per week (Detzin, 2010). No wonder we have trouble focusing on anything when multimedia’s bi-directional blanketing covers our environment! Shakespeare’s words precisely describe this modern day scenario, “We are consumed by that which we are nourished by” — a quote that Neil Postman would heartily agree with as well.
So, if the digital media deluge is hitting us at such a high daily rate, which type of media has the most detrimental effect on our attention span and ability to multitask? Consistently researchers point out that video games take the worst toll on the brain (Richtel, 2010). The intensity of the environment and the simulated reality combine with other factors to make the emotional stimulus of video gaming override all other brain functions and, in fact, contribute to poorer REM cycles of sleep due to the over activity in the brain sparked by video games. In essence, all other forms of media, including TV, are less disruptive to the brain than video games.
The US has yet to implement controls and pre-emptive educational programs to arm our Millenials (born between 1986 and 2000) and M2 generation (Kaiser Foundation term, born 1992-2002) with knowledge on how to manage these media forces bombarding them. In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that half of the students from M2 Generation are using the internet, watching TV or using some form of media while they are doing homework. In fact, the average of this generation is over 7 hours of media time per day. Factoring multitasking time, that number jumps to almost 11 hours per day. This age group does not have the self-control or discipline to choose schoolwork over the computer, but only 3 in 10 have rules set by their parents about media use. Of course, other diversions are readily available at their fingertips. It’s clear that when adults are not supervising, kids are using these mediums for entertainment, not education.
In the business environment, multitasking creates a scenario in which employees are prone to mistakes due to the brain’s aforementioned “attentional spotlight’s” inability to multitask. These errors in multitasking are comprised of two types: a) errors of commission—that of performing an incorrect action, such as writing a report on the wrong project (often related to low working memory) and b) errors of omission—that of not performing a correct action, such as not writing the report at all (often related to inability to quickly perceive of and shift to new priorities). Oberlander et al (2007) found that three failures generally can be found when analyzing errors in simultaneous work tasks:
1. The employee perceives the elements of the current situation inaccurately,
2. The significance of the elements as a whole is not understood by the employee, and/or
3. Potential future implications of the situation are not shared with or considered by the employee.
Of course, equally important individual differences predict multitasking performance as well. Another key finding in Oberlander et al’s research is that anxiety levels of employees impact both types of errors, but the level of conscientiousness of the employee had no relevance to the error. In other words, an employee’s high level of loyalty to the employer cannot be used to predict fewer mistakes but if we are able to decrease an employee’s level of anxiety, we increase the odds of the employee actually doing the task, and doing it correctly (2007).
How can we be more productive in our multitasking?
Most of us multitask, and in reality, the capability to multitask is becoming even more important. Thus, five simple considerations are provided to help us manage our time more effectively and efficiently, freeing us and those we work with to be fully engaged in what we are passionate about on both the personal and professional level.
First off, there is hope. Researchers have found a small contingent of the population (3%) that is naturally capable and highly skilled at multitasking (Watson, 2010). This small segment of the population is able to switch between tasks quickly without losing any speed or ability to comprehend the tasks, and is not experiencing the mistakes the majority of multitaskers are making. However, not much is known about this population so additional research is being conducted into this group to fully understand how their behavior differs from the majority and/or how their brains may be different. The HR Professional should keep a watch on this emerging field of study.
Secondly, as Oberlander et al (2007) discovered in the error-trending research, multitaskers would benefit greatly from reduced anxiety levels as the researchers found a clear relation between anxiety levels and both mistakes of commission and omission. This is a great opportunity for the HR professional to assist managers in decreasing levels of employee anxiety utilizing proven methodologies, including high frequency communication and transparency in decision-making.
Third, renowned technologist Pierre Khawand, Lecturer at UC Berkley’s Haas School of Business and Founder of People-OnTheGo, suggests structuring cycles of forty minutes total focus time into your daily calendar, followed immediately by thirty minutes dedicated collaborative time to get the most from your every minute at work. These forty minutes of focus requires that you ignore or turn off all interruptions in order to allow your brain to gather thoughts and concepts in order to achieve rich levels of concept maturation and ideation.
Fourth, national emphasis is required to ensure members of the M2 generation understand what the digital deluge means to them, how they can and should use it and, most importantly, its inherent dangers to them as students, individuals and members of society. South Korea has taken a leading role in legislating change at the national level due to recent and disturbing cases where teenagers have committed murder or suicide due to internet addiction. This national endeavor has been developing over the past 5 years, and includes education at the elementary level on internet etiquette, online safety and moderation when using the technology. Presently the S. Korean government is also contemplating banning those 16 and under from visiting the popular 24 hour internet cafes known as PC Bangs between the hours of midnight and 6 am. The national agenda in the US could include a similar type of education for those just entering the digital deluge, preparing them for the onslaught and creating awareness of the risks the technologies carry.
Fifth and finally, I share a humorous story that I heard from one of my webinar participants. Her colleague Jim was running a global team meeting with 35 participants joining from all across the world. His intention was to share slides over the internet with the participants while also speaking over a conference bridge line for one hour in order to reach a decision on a project. He started the meeting with a verbal introduction, then asked everyone to log into the website where he was hosting the meeting. After everyone was logistically situated, he proceeded to share his desktop mistakenly rather than just his powerpoint presentation. While discussion was ensuing between the members of his team, Jim started two skype chats—a spicy chat with his girlfriend and another chat with a colleague —all while his team was discussing the matter Jim had placed before him. Unbeknownst to Jim, all 35 of the team members that logged onto the shared website could see every one of the somewhat racy chat boxes popping up on Jim’s window.
Multitasking can be your friend with careful and attentive management, but, if not managed well, it quickly becomes your enemy.
Consuming kids: the commercialization of childhood. (2008). Media Education Foundation. Retrieved from www.mediaed.org
Dretzin, R. (Producer). (2010, February 2). Digital Nation. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nt3i4m54dw
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Haavisto, M.L., Porkka-Heiskanen T., Hublin, C., Härmä, M., Mutanen, P., Müller, K., Virkkala, J. & Sallinen, M. (2010). Sleep restriction for the duration of a work week impairs multitasking performance. Journal of Sleep Research 19, 444-454. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2869.2010.00823.x
Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year-olds. Retrieved from: http://www.slideshare.net/AlHaqqNetwork/kaiser-family-foundation-generation-m2
King, J. (2010). Multitasking or Multidistracting? Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQRLRC5uFPw
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Oberlander, E. M., Oswald, F. L., Hambrick, D. Z., Jones, L. A., United States, Bureau of Naval Personnel, & Navy Personnel Research, Studies, and Technology Division. (2007). Individual difference variables as predictors of error during multitasking. Millington, TN: Navy Personnel Research, Studies, and Technology (NPRST/PERS-1), Bureau of Naval Personnel.
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Watson, J.M. & Strayer, D.L. (2010). Supertaskers: profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(4), 479-485. doi:10.3758/PBR.17.4.479