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The Problems with Multi-Tasking

§ June 12th, 2010 § Filed under communication, small business, training § Tagged , , , , , , , § No Comments

I’m more convinced that we were not designed to multitask, and that our relationships and lives (business and personal) suffer when we do not focus on the person in front of us or the job we need to do.

When you are dividing your attention, you don’t learn as well. A research team from the UCLA Psychology Department found that there are different parts of your brain that handle memory of information and memory of tasks. There are two different parts of the brain – one is normally affected when learning new tasks without multitasking. If you have to multitask, the part of the brain that you use changes. That part is not accustomed to remembering information. Can the brain adapt? Who knows? But in the interim, quality decreases.

According to research done at the University of Michigan by Dr. David Meyer, when you multitask, you don’t actually do two things at once. You shift your focus between two activities. You may think you can do this effectively, but research shows that if you are able, you are in a very small minority (although you are in the majority in thinking you can do it.)

There are two distinct processes that happen when you shift. One is a goal-shift – you decide you want to do activity B instead of activity A. The second is a rule-shift – you change your mindset so that you can do what needs to be done. It’s sort of like changing between software programs and remembering how things work.

For instance, I’m working on the computer and the TV is going in the background and the phone rings. I mute the TV. When I’m finished with the call, I want to turn the TV sound back on, and I find myself moving the computer mouse like I normally would to turn off the screen saver. It takes me a moment to remember to hit the mute button on the remote. Each of these shifts takes time. Goal-shifting takes a split second, but rule-shifting can take a half second which can be enough time for your car to crash as you switch from talking on the phone to handling whatever hazard is on the road.

We live in a society where we are becoming significantly disconnected from each other. We use ATMs and pump our own gas. Sometimes our only human contact is when we are at the drive-thru. And we’ve gotten so rude that the service person doesn’t know if we are talking to him or her or to someone on our cell phone. My friends have “caught” me checking my email while I’m talking to them on the phone. I don’t want my friends to ignore me. We owe the people who wait on us the courtesy of being there, being truly present when they serve us.

We need to pay attention to the people we meet, because that human connection is ultimately what life is all about. Try it. Try actually listening to the people you meet. Don’t think about what you want to say. Don’t think about what you’re going to do later today or this weekend. Listen to the people who talk to you.

You can’t avoid multitasking completely. But when you have a choice, choose not to do it. If you can, put your phone on voice mail when you are completing a task. Leave a message that explains that you will return the call at a particular time. Then return the calls.

Most importantly, try this at home. You may be surprised at the reaction you get. You might realize what your spouse or your child really needs – time with you.

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