Monday Mornings with Madison


Recent studies conducted by Stanford University have found that multitasking basically makes you bad at everything. Several studies found that people regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

In a series of experiments, those who multitasked regularly were found to be less able to screen out irrelevant information, focus and prioritize tasks. In short: they got less done. When in situations where multiple sources of information was coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, multitasking subjects were not able to filter out what was and was not relevant to the goal at hand.  That failure to filter caused them to be slowed down by that irrelevant information.

Another study found that heavy multitaskers were often extremely confident in their abilities. But evidence showed that those people were actually worse at multitasking than most people.  The study found that self-described multitaskers performed much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involved distraction than did people who said they preferred to focus on single tasks. Even those performing the studies were surprised.  They had expected the multitaskers to perform better on at least some elements of the test. But no. The study was yet another piece of evidence for the un-wisdom of multitasking.

What was the takeaway from all these studies? Simple.  It’s time to stop e-mailing if you’re following the game on TV.  Rethink singing along with the radio if you’re reading the latest news online. The studies conclude that by doing less, you accomplish more.  But with departments and office staff leaner than ever and the pace of communication and business increasing steadily, doing just one thing at a time does not really seem like an option. In today’s office, anyone handling only one form of technology at a time is considered, at best, a dinosaur and, at worst, a slacker. So what is an individual to do?  There are three possible choices.

Option 1:  Return to unitasking.  
Turn your back on multitasking completely and return to the lost art of focus.  To unitask effectively, you need to get very clear about what you want to do, and very committed to doing it. Before unitasking, take a moment to untask. Stop everything that you are doing to clear your mind. Having untasked completely, ask yourself, “What do I really want (or need) to do right now?” Unitasking advocates believe a clear answer to this question will pop right into your mind because – having cleared your mind of other people’s voices – it should be much easier to hear your own voice.  Once you have chosen what you want to do, imagine the pleasure of doing it (or imagine the pleasure of having done it). Then affirm to yourself, “This is what I want to do,” and proceed. You are now able to unitask effectively.

Option 2:  Focus on value rather than volume.
Shift your mindset from a focus on volume to a focus on value.  Instead of trying to get everything done, identify activities and initiatives that truly add value.  It’s okay not to do certain things, or to do them later. We all have choices to make, as employees or managers.  Do what you can to make sure that those choices are based on value rather than volume.  Next time you have a manic day, instead of asking yourself how much you got done at the end of the day, focus instead on how valuable was the work you did.

Option 3:  Embrace multitasking and backlash against the backlash. 
If all this seems like a lot of rigmarole for simply turning off your email and internet, then perhaps you are part of the backlash against the backlash.  Perhaps you just want to embrace the ‘badness’ of multitasking and consider all this fretting itself a waste of time.  If that’s you, then the next time you hear someone talking or read someone writing about information overload, save your own attention and tune that person out.  After all, if no one’s ever going to do anything about the so-called multitasking problem, there is no point in overloading your own brain by wrestling with the issue.


“Many people feel they must multi-task because everybody else is multitasking, but this is partly because they are all interrupting each other so much.” Marilyn vos Savant

© 2010 – 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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