A New Way Of Looking At Multi-Tasking

When you’re in a meeting, do you often find your mind wandering to other stuff that needs doing when the meeting’s finished? Are you sometimes looking through emails on your laptop while also talking to someone else on the phone about totally different matters?

If so, you are probably practicing multi-tasking without realising it. But is this the most effective way of getting work completed?

Well, recent research at Stanford University has unearthed some interesting results concerning when we try to get more done by multi-tasking. They found that people who multi-tasked regularly performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to the reduced ability to filter out interference from other tasks.

They concluded that we, as humans, are not suited to paying attention to multiple tasks, and having multiple things to do at the same time.

Professor Earl Miller of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that our brains have to skip inefficiently between tasks, because it finds it difficult to concentrate on more than one task at a time, as it causes an overload on its processing capacity.

When we try to multi-task, we are often using the same part of our brain to do two different things, like when we are talking on the phone and writing an email. The processing power simply slows down.

When students took part in an American study, it took them up to 40% longer to completely solve problems when they had to switch to other tasks, than when they spent time solely concentrating on the problem itself.

And Glen Wilson, from the University of London, found that trying to multi-task similar situations could knock a whole 10 points off your IQ: the equivalent of losing a whole night’s sleep.

Does this mean we shouldn’t be doing more than one thing at a time? Naturally, we are able to flit our thoughts around while working on a task, but it seems that we are unable to work faster and accomplish more. In fact it can produce more stress, worry and frustration. We tend to go onto autopilot when we multi-task, and so we don’t use parts of the brain that form strong neural connections.

The obvious answer is to concentrate as much as possible on one thing at a time. But if you have to multi-task, here are some ideas:

• Overload often happens when you’re tired, so try to accomplish more things in the mornings, rather than leaving them to later in the day

• Multi-task with simple things that don’t take much brain work

• Try not to do too many similar things at once, as our brains will be using processing power that will slow down our responses if we do

• Take a break (5 minutes or so) every 90 minutes, so you refresh yourself

By the way, it’s a myth that women can multi-task better than men! Women have learned to do more diverse things better, so their brains are being utilised in a different way. Men can learn that, too!

Anyway, back to those e-mails, before another phone call comes through!

Thanks again,


Sean McPheat

Managing Director

MTD Training   | Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo

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Originally published: 2 June, 2010

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