This year, instead of making resolutions, I’d like you to give yourself a gift – stop multitasking.
In our crazy, busy world, we assume that we must do multiple tasks simultaneously, and do them well. The fact is, our brain takes in information sequentially and can only focus on one thing at a time. The more we switch back and forth between tasks, the less attention we pay to both. This is a major issue at work when we are frequently interrupted with last minute, time-critical requests.
Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says today’s nonstop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves—and that there is evidence it may be killing our concentration and creativity too.
In an article in Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) expert, Dr. Ned Hallowell identified a new attention deficit syndrome Attention Deficit Trait or ADT, resulting from the crazy pace of our work lives. Unlike ADD, which has a biological component that can be aggravated by environmental factors, ADT is caused by brain overload. As Hallowell puts it, “Like a traffic jam, ADT is an artifact of modern life brought on by the demands on our time and attention.” Symptoms of ADT are distractibility, impatience, and anxiety. As our minds become overloaded, our ability to focus and attend fully is severely diminished.
Unfortunately, the expectation in many workplaces is that employees be able to keep up with the increasing weight of information overload and interruptions. Employees, in turn, think that they need to grin and bear it, resulting in low self-esteem, sleep problems and even depression.
“There’s this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive,” said Zheng Wang, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. In her study of college students, participants who multi-tasked felt better but were not more productive. In her latest book, Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace, best-selling author and meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg compares the rush that people who multitask feel to a gambler’s high. “Strung out by information overload, many of us are becoming habituated and addicted to distraction. Successful multitasking has been shown to activate the reward circuit in the brain by increasing dopamine levels— the brain chemical responsible for feelings of happiness. The danger of this is that the dopamine rush feels so good that we don’t notice we’re making more mistakes,” says Salzberg.
Try the following if the demands of work make you feel like a hamster on a wheel:
- Talk to your manager and ask for help. Frame your comments based on the needs of the business, the contributions you’ve made and those you expect to make with additional support.
- Take breaks between intervals of sustained attention. Work for 20-30 minutes on one task rather than dividing your attention.
- Do what Salzberg calls a “micro-meditation.” One she suggests is the following – Breathe in and out slowly for one to three minutes. While doing this, notice the sensation of your breath going in and out.
- On a conference call, don’t read email or surf the web.
What strategies have worked for you when you feel overwhelmed at work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.