Submitted by Martha Somers, Administrator of Information Services, ICP, Inc. from Patrick Gray in Tech Decision Maker, August 13, 2013
The lie of multitasking
The ability to perform multiple activities at once is usually regarded as an asset. Recent research may prove that wrong. Multitasking has been defined as the ability to perform multiple activities at once and has been regarded as an asset. Managers have encouraged their staff to multitask, and they frequently speak of employees who are effective multitaskers in a positive light.
However, recent research into how the brain functions suggests that multitasking isn’t the asset we once thought, and that those long-admired employees and peers are more likely better at focusing and shifting on single tasks, rather than possessing some super-human ability to simultaneously perform multiple tasks. Previously, the brain was regarded much like the processor in our computers and phones. You could allocate a percentage of the processor’s overall capacity to a task, and the task would be completed commensurate with the allocation it received.
Multitasking in the field
Unlike our computers, the human brain’s capacity to process degrades significantly the more tasks it’s trying to manage. Rather than a 50% reduction in performance when trying to do two similar tasks at once, the reduction tends to be more in the area of 80-95%.
For an example of how ineffective we are at multitasking, do some “field research” during your next conference call. Even a task like triaging email or playing Solitaire significantly degrades one’s ability to follow the conversation.
While the research clearly indicates the human brain struggles to perform multiple tasks at once, most of us have met people who have a seemingly inhuman ability to perform several distinct activities under pressure. However, if you study these people, they tend to gather a collection of tasks, sequence them logically, and then focus with laser-like intensity on a single activity. These are the people who are not fondling their smartphones in meetings or stopping to open their email application every time the new email beep occurs. Rather than performing several activities at once, they’re able to focus on a single activity, then rapidly shift to the next activity.
Practical multitasking
To apply these lessons to your own organization, stop trying to foster some inhuman ability to simultaneously perform multiple tasks. A critical component of managing multiple tasks is gathering and prioritizing each, so work to develop your task management and tracking capabilities. This might be a well-defined system and set of tools, or merely sitting for a few moments and gathering your thoughts before jumping to the next email or beeping device.
Finally, work on applying 100% of your focus to the task at hand. With these easily applied techniques, you can become far more efficient at managing multiple tasks and using the human mind to its most effective capacity. While this may seem subtly nuanced from the old idea of multitasking, try these techniques for a day or two and you’ll notice a world of difference.

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