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Attention Multi-tasker: You Brain May Be in Harm’s Way

September 8, 2015

A human being’s ability to do multiple things at once has been a thing of wonder forever. A modern-day man can listen to music on full-blast while he texts his girlfriend and eat a sandwich while on his commute to work. And this same person can be found juggling between multiple tabs on his browser, while he checks his emails and instant messages, all the while preparing a power point presentation for a meeting slated in the afternoon.


Is it fair to say that multitasking has become a jarring way of life for the modern man? Most definitely.

Is it also fair to say that multitasking endlessly takes a toll on you? Yes. More often than not.

Is it then fair to assume that multitasking is unproductive? In parts, yes. And here’s why.

After writing the first paragraph of this post I went straight to my phone because a pretty blue light started flickering, indicating I have new message waiting for me. After spending two minutes on Whatsapp, I came back to this post at the cost of having lost my train of thoughts, alas. The distraction of that bright shiny light on my phone cost me my efficiency and I had to start all over again.

At any given point in time we are subjected to one too many things that seek our attention — that bright blue light flickering on the phone indicating that there’s a new message waiting for you to be read or an inbox full of promotional emails from your favorite brands. It is a scientific fact that while at work; a person is interrupted almost every 11 minutes on an average. And we, as humans, are biologically tuned to turn to shiny objects almost instantly under the pretense that this little thing of apparent urgency is possibly far more interesting than what we are currently doing. We all do this. And we all know that it is doing us harm.

A Stanford Report from 2009 found that people who are constantly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

There is a ‘mental price’ we pay for multitasking, the study highlighted. But there is also a far bigger cost associated with juggling tasks. The cost associated with task switching.

When jumping between tasks, it takes time for your brain to come back to the original train thought. Loss of momentum is very common with task switching and it costs you not just creatively but in terms of work hours as well. For; the more time it takes for you to resume your original state of mind, the longer it will take for you to complete the task properly. A NY Times research article from 2005 established that when a worker is distracted from his/her task, it takes about 25 minutes on an average for them to cycle back to the original task.

Is mono-tasking the answer to work productivity problems?

Not necessarily.

In today’s high-tech world, distractions are all but common and building a firewall against them is anything but easy.

But sometimes, distractions are necessary. That urgent email which pops up right before an urgent meeting can just save your behind from an impending train-wreck of a situation. A phone-call from a client could just be about a piece of information you really, really need to know. Every so often, distractions are about the work itself than a hindrance to it, and cutting off completely from these external forces is just not conducive to present work ecosystems.

So, if distractions are inevitable at work, how about trying to find a way to work ‘with them’? We are, after all, capable of re-engineering our ways to accommodate the necessary kinds of interruptions and it isn’t all that much of a task.


How to become a pro at ‘multitasking’ without it becoming ‘tasking’

  • Plan liberally

The biggest culprit in this whole scenario is lack of effective planning. If you have clarity on what your tasks are, what are your deliverables and how does your work translate into the bigger organizational goal, you are in a better position to take control of your day and plan for successful results. Remind yourself of your goals every day in order to understand what needs to be done each day till the end of the project. So no matter how many distractions come in the course of the day, you will find ways to make amends.

In the context of battling multitasking, planning translates directly into discipline.
  • Time track to stay on track

It helps to pay attention to how much time you spend working on a task. There are plenty of web applications and project management tools that allow you to track time across every task you do. This way, if you see yourself weaning away from the schedule — whether it is because of some distraction or something ad-hoc — you can make necessary amendments to your to-do-list to get things done on time.

Time tracking keeps you mindful of the amount of time a task consumes.”

Productivity tip: always keep you task in your line of sight — put up a post-it or set a reminder in your phone. This way even when a distraction comes barging through you do not lose sight of the task you were intending to complete.

  • Try working with the 2-minute rule

The 2-miute rule was made popular by David Allen, a personal-productivity guru who consults with Fortune 500 corporations. It’s pretty simple — if you can address an interruption in under 2 minutes, go ahead and do it. If it requires you to devote any more time than that, simply add it to you to-do list and get to it when time permits.

  • Be aware of your own limitations

In our quest be known and appreciated at work, we forget that taking on too much at once will harm us. Other times we assume our realities to be completely different from what they are — if you know you cannot focus on a task for more than 15minutes, break all your tasks into 15-minute activities. Take tea breaks, grab a bite or just tune out for a moment, and come to the task refreshed.

  • Play the offense

There are times when we really are involved on high priority, high risk tasks that require our uninterrupted attention. In this case, consciously tune out everything else — send auto-emails to people telling them you are currently involved in something important and that they can reach out to somebody else in the team to address the query. Request your team manager to route only task-related interruptions to you. This will not make you a bad team player, but it will establish your dedication to work and how you regard your own time and that of everybody else’s.

Meeta Sharma is an independent writing and editing professional from digital marketing domain. Loves marketing and everything about it.

Meeta Sharma

Meeta Sharma is a content marketing specialist and regularly writes about her domain and start-up life.

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