Multi-tasking has become a well-recognized attribute in the workforce and the new norm—almost to the point where we now brag about our ability to juggle two or more things at once. Many job ads now ask for the standard prerequisite: “Efficient multi-tasker—able to juggle multiple projects and priorities under short deadlines”. Yet the relentless, almost contagious need to juggle more than one thing at a time can drain an employee’s time, energy and can lead to further frustration and stress in the workplace, says Carolin Rekar Munro, Associate Professor of Leadership and Human Resource Management at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C.
Research shows that neurologically, we are single-activity beings. A study in the scientific journal Neuron suggests that while we can train our brains to work faster as we juggle, we never actually manage to do more than one thing at a time.
“We are not wired, from a brain perspective, to handle more than one task at a time. So the term multi-tasking is a bit of a misnomer,” says Professor Rekar Munro. “In reality what we’re focussing on is an ability to juggle many things, but the key is we expediently switch from one task to the other.” The brain has difficulty consciously processing two complex streams of information simultaneously, such as two people talking at once, and some of the information inevitably gets lost, experts say.
“Multi-tasking is a ‘two-edged sword’ with both major potential costs and benefits,” says David Meyer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. “When occasional lulls occur in performing one important task (preparing a meal, for example), filling them with work on another important task (tending to children, for example) may increase one’s overall productive efficiency,” he says. “Under many circumstances, however, attempts to multi-task will lead to gross inefficiencies, increased stress, and hazards to one’s health.
“For example, it’s seldom a good idea to answer frequent phone calls or email messages while trying to write a complicated office memo, and answering phone calls while driving in heavy city traffic greatly increases the risks of harmful automobile accidents. So, just as Kenny Rogers advised for playing poker, when you have lots of tasks at hand, ‘you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run’.”
Research also shows that when we’re multi-tasking, what we’re often doing is taking a surface look at the topic, so the quality is diminished says Professor Rekar Munro. “If you can focus on just that one activity, to the best of your ability, it allows you to ask new questions to drill down even further on the analysis and recommendations of what you’re doing,” she says. “So you produce a richer, final product that has depth and breadth, because you’ve allowed yourself that concentrated time to work just on that objective.”
Generation Y Thrives by Multi-tasking
Professor Rekar Munro has been conducting a cross-Canada study of how Generation Y—those born between 1981 to 2000—actually thrive in a multi-tasking environment. “The technology pressures and inconveniences that we often talk about, (because technology does interfere with our ability to focus in the workplace) we don’t find that’s the case with Generation Y—we find the opposite—it’s part of their lexicon and they do not see it as a bad thing. They are so familiar with technology it’s part of breathing for them.”
Professor Rekar Munro is also looking at how Generation Y impacts organizations from a leadership perspective. “What is the new work-day going to look like when Generation Y takes the leadership helm? What is our organizational structure going to look like?”
Our current discussions about multi-tasking and technology are based on assumptions that might be appropriate for the older generation, such as Generation X, baby boomers and traditionalists, she says. In reality, however, this isn’t really an issue for the upcoming generation. “Five, six years from now we probably won’t even be talking about the curses of technology and the curses of multi-tasking—we’ll probably be talking about how we embrace it differently.”
While the thought of working with people who multi-task and seem to lack focus may make some people cringe, Generation Y does place a high priority on work-life balance, however. “Some of the recommendations of carving out time to work exclusively on a project will probably be the norm.” And they may be the ones taking the reins and leading by example–and carving out that “sacred, do-not-disturb” time that many of us long nostalgically for.