PM Article: Taking On Too Much at Once?

In our current era of multitasking, concentration and focus are underrated.

ARTICLE | May 17, 2016
By Jeff Davidson

By Jeff Davidson

A magnifying glass held at the correct angle to the sun will quickly burn a hole through a piece of paper. At the same time, no matter how much sun shines through your office window onto your desk, none of those long and tedious memos are going to catch on fire. The lack of combustibility has nothing to do with the way the manufacturer engineered this flat piece of glass.

In our current era of multitasking, concentration and focus are underrated. Multitasking is occasionally helpful and seemingly satisfying but along with the shower of information and communication overload, represents a paradoxical impediment to getting things done. Let’s see why.

More Speed, Less Comprehension

The term multitasking evolved from the computer industry. The early mainframe computers designed with parallel processes is perhaps the prime example of automated multitasking.

Today, with the typical office professional sending or receiving more than 200 messages a day—counting all forms of communication—and all of them coming and going at shorter intervals, a generation of career professionals are being driven virtually to distraction.

Against the backdrop of information and communication overload, ever-advancing technology, and more choices than anyone needs or even wants, seemingly, an entire workforce generation has been taught to multitask as if this is the way it has always been, needs to be, and always will be.

We offer our attention here, there, and then somewhere else. Too often, we equate stirring up a lot of commotion and making some noise with accomplishment.

We can barely tolerate stillness. For many, silence doesn’t appear to be golden; it seems more like a dark space. ”Undivided attention” is a term that has fallen out of popular use.

Generally, we feel guilty if we don’t multitask. We contemplate our increasing workloads and responsibilities and how they are subject to continual shifts, and justify multitasking as a valid response to a world of flux.

The Task at Hand

Despite the temptation to do otherwise, focusing on the task at hand is vital to getting things done. Whether there’s a handful of tasks confronting you, or ideally only one, give all your time, attention, energy, focus, concentration, and effort to the task at hand, and then turn to what’s next.

Multitasking seemingly enables one to achieve time-saving benefits, but does it? While some people remain relatively unscathed by multitasking and can get as much done in the course of the workday as someone who focuses on one task at a time, most people suffer in ways they don’t even understand.

A Host of Hazards

Rather than increasing productivity, multitasking diminishes it. Multitaskers make more mistakes. They leave too many things undone. Their quality of work is not what it could be.

And the list of potential hazards of multitasking is beginning to grow. Are you a victim to any of these?

  • Gaps in short-term memory.
  • Loss of concentration.
  • Problems communicating with coworkers.
  • Lapses in attentiveness.

When multitasking, sometimes your brain can go into a crash mode. This is characterized by not being able to remember what you just said or did, or what you’re going to do next. This has been termed “having a senior moment,” but it’s no joke, and it doesn’t only happen to seniors.

Professor David Meyer at the University of Michigan has established a link between chronic high-stress, multitasking, and loss of short-term memory. “There is scientific evidence that multitasking is extremely hard for someone to do, and sometimes impossible,” he says. The time lost switching between tasks tends to increase the perceived complexity of the tasks and often results in making a person less efficient than if he or she had chosen to focus on one task or project at time.

Research conducted in 2002 by the National Institute of Mental Health on switching back and forth between activities reveals that when the brain has to juggle several tasks at once or in rapid succession, it has to overcome “inhibitions” that it put in place to cease doing the task to begin with. It’s as if the brain is taking its foot on and off the break.

Focus and concentration will be your keys for getting things done. Multitasking, as it is popularly understood and practiced, is not your answer. It is expensive in terms of the level of stress induced and the rise in errors and, hence, can actually hamper productivity.

Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC, is principal, Breathing Space® Institute, Raleigh, North Carolina (www.BreathingSpace.com or Jeff@Breathingspace.com). An author and presenter on work-life balance, he holds the world’s only registered trademark from the United States Patent and Trademark Office as “The Work-Life Balance Expert.”®

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