Great at Multitasking? Well, That’s a Bummer!

These days I’ve been working with a lot of entrepreneurs here in New York.  What has always amazed me was many of them do multiple tasks while in the middle of a conversation with me, their teacher/coach.

At first I thought there was something wrong with me for not being good at multitasking myself and perhaps I was missing out on being more productive.

But then about a year ago I began to notice the busier and more multitasking the entrepreneur was, the more stressed and overwhelmed they also were.

And significantly less productive.

How significantly?

Multitasking can reduce productivity by approximately 40% according to some researchers.

Additionally, switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow down your progress.

But the real surprise came from Stanford University’s sociology professor Dr. Clifford Nass and his study of “heavy” multitaskers.

Interviewed on NPR, Dr. Nass discovered from studying students at Stanford the higher the multitasker, the worse they were at multitasking.

So all those young whippersnappers you see walking around with gadgets hanging all over them are, according to Dr. Nass’ research, the least productive.

Go figure!

Why are the “best” multitaskers actually the worst?

Dr. Nass thinks the answer might be in how the heavy multitaskers manage information:  do they explore vs. exploit it?

“Exploration refers to the desire to just gather more and more information, whereas exploitation involves the focused concentration in information,” Nass explains.

Regardless the reason, all studies by Dr. Nass and others show that multitasking impairs performance.

In fact it can even be harmful.

Harmful because multitasker’s cognitive processes are impaired, even when multitasking is relatively mild.

This means multitaskers are worse at most kinds of thinking, not just the type of thinking required to multitask.

Multitasker’s thinking is impaired by (according the Dr. Nass’ research):

1)   Reduced ability to filter information (useful vs. useless)— multitaskers are “suckers for distractions and suckers for the irrelevant….” says Dr. Nass.  In fact the more irrelevant the information, the more they are attracted to it.

2)   Reduced ability to manage memory— how well you organize it in your brain and pull it up when needed.  Multitaskers are much worse at managing their memory.

3)   Reduced ability to switch tasks— contrary to what would have seemed obvious, multitaskers are MUCH WORSE at switching from task to task!

While each of these three are amazing handicaps in their own right, the third one is down right scary.  Think texting while driving, conducting a train, or even flying an airplane.  All of which have made it in the news lately as sources of some fairly serious accidents.

As you know, entrepreneurs have a LOT to manage.  We are overwhelmed with things we have to get done, distractions we must manage and new business we must generate.

Just don’t do them while multitasking!


Action Steps for the Week:

If you find yourself not being able to manage the impulse of checking emails every few minutes, keeping your IM system on, Skype, Twitter, or other social media notification loaded, TV on while you’re trying to do your work, or any combination of these, then you may want to retrain your brain to focus.

First and foremost get this e-book:  FOCUS– A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distration by Leo Babauta.

Commit to reading this book a few minutes each day and start to clear out the unsupportive habits you have around your daily routines.

Start with the basics:  clear off your desk and work environment, the piles of stuff cluttering your space, and then work towards de-cluttering your computer and desktop.

Then develop routines for when and how long to do certain tasks like checking emails, doing social media work, returning calls, etc.  And then shut it off.

Have problems with this?  There are software apps to help you manage this.

Once you start putting these practices into place, you will find you are so much more productive than you were when you thought you could not miss that email or IM coming in.

Do it and you’ll see.