"And the beat goes on........................"
For a long time, the ability to simultaneously juggle multiple assignments - to multi-task - has been a required skill for arts administrators. Our job announcements list it as necessary.
The reason we have embraced this concept is likely that our workloads have become ever more demanding and complex, while our time has grown ever scarcer. We simply lack the financial resources to employ a sufficient number of people to get the work done, and so each of us must take on a greater and greater work load. This is particularly true for smaller organizations with small staffs. We juggle, we attempt to multi-task. We try to do several things at once.
But the evidence is very strong that multi-tasking not only doesn't work - it is counter productive, and may slow us down rather than enabling us to get more done.
According to an article in Health:
"Contrary to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t save time. In fact, it will probably take you longer to finish two projects when you’re jumping back and forth than it would to finish each one separately.
What you call multitasking is really task-switching, says Guy Winch, PhD, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says."
So multi-tasking is really a misnomer. We constantly switch between tasks. Too often we switch back and forth, and suffer the same negatives that are associated with multi-tasking.
In a Los Angeles Times piece reposted in Psychology Today, Steve Chawkins noted that Dr. Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor, who was the director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab, noted that multi-tackers:
"showed impaired cognitive processing, which is necessary for effective multitasking and deep thought. His research looked at three skills: filtering, working memory management, and task switching. Filtering is the ability to focus on the relevant and ignore the irrelevant. Working memory management is the ability to organize information and retrieve it efficiently. Task switching involves the speed at which someone is able to move from one task to another. In all three areas, Dr. Nass and his colleagues found that multitaskers performed quite poorly."
"In an NPR interview, Dr. Nass described multitaskers as "suckers for distraction and suckers for the irrelevant, and so the more irrelevant information they see, the more they're attracted to it." He also discovered that multitaskers tend to be worse at managing their working memory and slower at switchhng from one task to another."
As reported in the Psychology Today article, Chawkins's LA Times article noted that:
"Dr. Nass was especially concerned to find that "people who regularly jumped into four or more information streams had a tougher time concentrating on just one thing even when they weren’t multitasking "
The Health article noted a dozen reasons why multi-tasking may be a bad idea, including:
- "It's stressful," and that stress is not without consequences.
- "You're not actually good at it."
- It wastes time. "Psychiatrists and productivity experts often recommend OHIO: Only Handle It Once. It basically means if you take something on, don’t stop until you’ve finished it. The problem with multitasking, though, is that it makes Only Handling It Once a near impossibility—instead, you’re handling it five or six times, says Winch. “If you’re going to stick to this principle, you need to be disciplined and plan out your day so that when a distraction arises or a brilliant idea occurs to you, you know that there will be time for it later.”
- "It’s dampening your creativity. Multitasking requires a lot of what’s known as "working memory," or temporary brain storage, in layman’s terms. And when working memory’s all used up, it can take away from our ability to think creatively, according to research from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Too much focus can actually harm performance on creative problem-solving tasks,” the authors wrote in their 2010 study. With so much already going on in their heads, they suggest, multitaskers often find it harder to daydream and generate spontaneous “a ha moments.”
Another online article authored by Simone Smith in 15Five, adds:
- "More Tasks = More Mistakes. This is a logical consequence of the lack of focus characteristic of multitasking. When doing several things at once, your mind is divided between them so it’s only natural that your mistakes will multiply. And according to the Stanford research, multitaskers are terrible at filtering out irrelevant information. That means that there is sure to be some mental cross-firing and overlap between tasks."
- "It affects your memory. In 2011, the University of California, San Francisco published a research study showing how quickly shifting from one task to another impacts short term memory."
- It causes anxiety.
So why do we continue to believe multi-tasking is a positive attribute; one essential to our work?
Clearly, all of us have a lot on our plates. Different tasks that have to get done every day; frequently too much really. But the evidence suggests that trying to deal with all these things at the same time is counter productive and a poor use of our time. Better to focus on one at a time, than to have several open at once.
And just like when we were students, many of us likely procrastinate, and instead of starting work in earnest when an assignment first materializes, we postpone diving into it until it registers with us that the completion date is at hand. That's unfortunately a bad habit we need to unlearn. So the key may be prioritization, and getting an early start on new tasks -- though I know that is a luxury not always available to all of us. Certainly reducing our workload isn't always possible. Avoiding jumping back and forth, and focusing one one task at a time seems to work better.
We ought to delete the mythical skill of multi-tasking from our job posts. Asking people to accept that the job entails doing the impossible is a mistake for people and organizations. Focus is the skill we need, and the habits that make it possible.
Have a good week.