Productivity for leaders demands wise time management. But will multi-tasking make us better time managers? This study says no. A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of 10 points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and 15 points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis. While this fact might make an interesting dinner party topic, it’s really not that amusing that one of the most common “productivity tools” can make one as dumb as a stoner (David Rock, Your Brain at Work, p. 36). If you get sucked into multi-tasking, consider these four ways to fight against the tendency.
Many leaders, including me, have too often convinced themselves that multi-tasking leads to better time management. Actually, it doesn’t. Researchers have shown that when we try to do two mental tasks at once, our cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an 8-year-old (Rock, p. 34).
Although we technically can do two tasks at once, it dramatically slows our mental processing. So, if you think you are saving time by multi-tasking, you really aren’t. Neuroscientists call this dual-task interference. Because the high-level thinking part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) works in a serial fashion, one item at a time, when we multi-task we clog up its processing speed and actually reduce our effectiveness.
Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft, captured the essence in the term continuous partial attention. She describes it this way. “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.” As a result, this “always on” mode puts our brains on constant alert, thus flooding them with too much stress hormone which slows processing.
So what can we do to moderate this tendency?
1. Embed repetitive tasks deep into our long-term memory so we that we can actually do them without thinking. An example is driving. We don’t really think about driving because we’ve done it long enough to make it a habit. Such habits don’t require the executive functions of our brains. Rather, they are stored into the part of our brain that stores routine functions, the basal ganglia.
2. Prioritize your tasks for the day. Every day take a few minutes to plan your day so that you do the most mentally taxing things first. This appointment with the executive center of our brains assures we do our best thinking for what demands it.
3. Turn off notifications on your computer or mobile device. I thought in my iPad and iPhone all I had to do was to keep an app out of Notifications. I just realized that I have to go into settings and turn off notifications in each app. When I read, I hated getting the reminders at the top of the screen which interrupted my train of thought. I no longer get them.
4. Determine when you will attend to those tasks that interrupted you. When I write or study, I turn off email. But every hour or so when I take a break, I will turn it on and quickly look at email and respond to those that I can in the moment. That way I can focus on that which requires my mental energy and check off those less demanding tasks at those scheduled times .
How do you handle the multi-tasking monster?
My latest book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, provides practical insight from brain insight on many areas of leadership.