How Managers Can Manage Multitasking

There are remedies to our problems with multitasking
There are remedies to our problems with multitasking
Image Credit: Richard Giles

For most managers, there is always too much work to be done. What that means is that we find ourselves multitasking trying to get all of the work that has been assigned to us completed. Although we may feel proud of what we are able to accomplish, are we really getting anything done? Does multitasking work for us? Learning how to balance multiple responsibilities is a key part of becoming a successful manager. We need to learn how to multitask well.

The Problem With Media Multitasking

By now we have probably all experienced that productivity rush we get when responding to Slack messages from colleagues, emailing our child’s teacher and placing an Amazon order – all while on a Teams call? Not all of our multitasking is the same, of course. Generally speaking, folding laundry while watching TV isn’t a problem. However, trying to study for an exam while listening to music and checking your social-media feed can be.

As it turns out, so called “media multitasking” is making us less productive, not more, according to the neuroscientists and others who are studying this. You may be checking stuff off your to-do list, but at the same time you might also be missing some of the more important things that go whizzing by. Our nonstop switching between devices and apps slows our ability to process and retain information, decreases our ability to filter out extraneous information, shortens our attention span and can cause us to make mistakes the neuroscientists say. The researchers are telling us that the glut of new technological distractions over the past decade means the consequences of bad multitasking can now be direr than ever.

Attempting to do too many things at once can cause a bottleneck in our prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center. Researchers conducted brain-imaging scans of young adults to see what was going on while the participants were asked to read or listen to two kinds of sentences: sensical (“This morning I ate an egg.”) and nonsensical (“This morning I ate a bowl of hats.”). The participants were then asked to identify which sentences made sense. While doing this they were presented with written and spoken sentences at the same time. The study showed that the participants’ ability to correctly identify sentences declined significantly when their attention was divided between written and spoken sentences.

Why Do We Have Problems Multitasking?

The study that was performed provides evidence that the brain reaches a capacity limit as it tries to process two streams of information at once. Back in 2002 American adults were spending up to 40 hours a week consuming media; now, they’re spending about 80 hours a week doing so. The question is how do people spend the equivalent of two full-time jobs a week consuming media? The answer is that it isn’t possible unless they’re doing two things at once.

Adults aren’t immune to the detrimental effects of attempting to do too much. We allow ourselves to be constantly distracted by notifications at work and families can’t seem to watch a TV show together without one or more members simultaneously scrolling social media. These habits tend to carry over into all areas of life including driving, where divided attention can be fatal.

It has been shown that people who claim to multitask less often were better able to tune out the distraction. You can do this if you can block out focus time. Set aside time to get a work project done and set your phone to Do Not Disturb. You need to set expectations. If your co-workers frequently need to be in touch, let them know when you plan to be offline focusing on a project. Leave your phone in another room. Whether you’re working on a report or are in a meeting, have your phone out of sight. Research has shown that just seeing your phone, even if it’s muted and the screen is obscured, can lead to distracting thoughts.

What All Of This Means For You

It never seems as though a manager has enough time to get everything that has to be accomplished done. In order to get what needs to be done done, all too often we attempt to do multiple things at the same time. We generally think that we are pretty good at doing this. However, it turns out that attempting to do this type of multitasking comes with some downsides. Managers have to be aware of the challenges that they face when they try to do multiple things using multiple types of media all at the same time.

The people who study us when we are media multitasking have discovered that doing this actually makes us less productive. When we divide our attention between multiple inputs, our ability to successfully do work goes down. Our lives have become more and more complicated and it turns out that our brains don’t do well when we ask them to do two things at a time. Those of us who say that we can multitask, often can’t. We need to understand that we have to take steps to allow us to work on our work without having to multitask.

Understanding what we do well and what we don’t do well is a key part of being a successful manager. What we need to do is to realize that when we are multitasking and multitasking among different types of media, our productivity goes down. What we need to do is realize that in order to be productive we need to focus on single tasks. We have to organize our lives so that we can accomplish this. If we can do this, then we can boost our productivity.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So how are you feeling? That pandemic thing took a lot out of managers. We had all of the normal things that we had to worry about and then we also had to make sure that the members of our team were keeping things together. Oh, and our family and friends were also dealing with the pandemic in ways that affected us. If you are like most managers, you are feeling overwhelmed right about now. In fact, you just might be feeling burned out. If you are, you should probably tell your boss that you feel this way. Do you think that you boss needs to know?