Pause to Think before you Multitask

If you are reading this in a meeting or between emails – you just became another victim of distraction!

In most work environments we all face a continuous struggle to maintain our focus. Constant news feeds, emails, tweets, social media sites, and other digital distractions interrupt our ability to concentrate. In tactical settings we understand the need for dedicated attention. Distraction can lead to a lack of situational awareness and impair rapid-decision-making. When we return to base, however, we often forget about the importance of focus. We allow ourselves to become immersed in a constant stream of pings, chirps, and alerts. We are interrupted by others and ourselves.[i] Some think that multitasking allows them to get more done, more effectively. They are sadly mistaken.

Is multitasking really that bad? Yes, and here’s why:

  • Distraction leads to wasted time – It takes an average of 25 minutes for workers to regain focus after having been distracted.[ii] Bouncing between tasks cheats productivity.
  • Multitasking affects accuracy – When asked to juggle between multiple tasks people make more mistakes.[iii] It is tough to pay attention to the details if you cannot pay attention to the task at hand.
  • Multitasking impairs long-term memory – Students who browse the internet during lectures to find related information recall far less of the lecture’s content.[iv] Memory imprinting requires focus.
  • Interruptions make us dumber – The distraction of an interruption, combined with the impacts of preparing for that interruption, impairs performance on cognitive skill tests by as much as 20%.[v] Multitasking makes us dumber.
  • Emotional intelligence suffers from multitasking – Texting at work and reading email during conversations lowers self-awareness and social-awareness.[vi] Mindfulness in the moment matters in relationships.
  • Prolonged multitasking may have negative cumulative effects – Findings show that the extent to which students engage in Facebook and texting while completing schoolwork corresponds to a negative correlation with their overall college GPA.[vii] Self-disciplined attention pays long-term dividends.

Recommendations and the Takeaway

Multitasking and distraction have significant impacts on performance – both in terms of productivity and accuracy. It is becoming increasingly clear that the proliferation of information technologies is increasing the likelihood that we, or those whom we support, will suffer from digital intrusions. Therefore, consider the following if you wish to reduce these impacts:

  • Find a quiet place to work and close your door if you need to concentrate.
  • Turn off the alerts on your devices. When you have time, and it’s the right time, go back and find the content you want.
  • When you are in a learning environment stay focused on the speaker not your device – you will remember more.
  • Be mindful of how you impact your teammates’ ability to focus – don’t become a distractor.
  • As a military communicator consider the impacts of the latest greatest technologies on your teammates’ ability to concentrate – more bells and whistles may impair performance.
  • As a leader make time and space for your team to think – they need it!

Disclaimer

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.

References

[i] http://www.fastcompany.com/944128/worker-interrupted-cost-task-switching

[ii] http://www.fastcompany.com/944128/worker-interrupted-cost-task-switching

[iii] http://interruptions.net/literature/Adler-IntJHumComputStud12.pdf

[iv] http://www.ugr.es/~victorhs/recinfo/docs/10.1.1.9.9018.pdf

[v] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/opinion/sunday/a-focus-on-distraction.html?_r=0

[vi] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-patty-ann-tublin/multitasking-lowers-your-_b_7788198.html

[vii]http://sites.oxy.edu/clint//physio/article/NoA4UTherelationshipbetweenmultitaskingandacademicperformance.pdf


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