Over the last two days I had the pleasure of presenting a keynote speech on the "Biology of Engagement" for a telecommunications company in Sydney. One of the participants asked me about multi-tasking. 

So today, I think it is worthwhile to explore this topic. It may be approximately 10 years since I first heard managers in organisations talking about the importance of hiring staff able to multi-task. 

What I have noticed though, is, that instead of multi-tasking, people are continuously complaining about how little they can get done in terms of work itself while being persecuted by a never-ending flood of messages, phone calls and emails.

It is clear that some people are able to prioritise, allocate times when they can be contacted, and, say "no" to this continuous bombardment. They may understand intuitively that going deeply into a topic requires the elimination of all distractions. They may have the experience and/or the confidence to declare themselves  unavailable to the demands of others.

As scientists develop a better understanding of how attention works in the brain, one would hope that this myth about multi-tasking will fade with time. It is critical for a leader to understand that creating new concepts, developing strategies, and/or analysing important information, is not feasible when people are not able to focus on the topic at hand and  they are pushed to consider lots of inputs at the same time.

Multi-tasking requires holding several concepts/ideas in mind at the same time. The reality is that the brain can only hold no more than four at once. And if the concept is totally new, the brain can hold not more than one. Multi-tasking becomes easier when we are handling things that are already familiar to us (such as routine tasks ).

Memory, performance, and accuracy, degrades rapidly if we push the Pre-frontal  cortex to deal with many things at once as a lot of energy is required for the process of multi-tasking.

Developing the capacity to diminish distractions as we deal with important issues, embedding repetitive tasks whenever we can, and  managing our internal thought processes to avoid feeling guilty when  we say "no" to others -- is probably better use of our brain capacity in terms of  individual and organisational performance.

Originally posted on: 13 May 2010
Last updated on: 18 February 2024
The About my Brain Institute

The About my Brain Institute

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