What happens when we require employees to perform multi-tasking?
Among the key qualifications included in many job ads is the “Ability to multitask”. As such, candidates are expected in their job interviews to share experiences of the times when they managed multiple tasks.
Today, companies are promoting this “Ability” as employees do their best at work to live up to their company’s—or their manager’s—expectation and perform multiple tasks at the same time.
Consequently, “multi-tasking” together with implications of the digital world have created a vicious circle depriving the 21st century professional of the privileges of what distinguishes it from all other species on this planet, namely its unique brain.
The vicious circle is contributed to by modern technology in the ways it complicates the situation for many professionals. For one thing, they are expected to handle simultaneous demands through email, text messages, phone calls, and in-person contact with stakeholders. For another, even if they want to focus, pop ups on their devices prompt them to check their phones and emails while working on other tasks.
It goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with the technological advancement that we are experiencing, nor with its pace which most people can’t keep up with. The problem lies in 1) how we go about using that technology, and 2) how we fall victim to group thinking and use that technology how others use it, not how we should be using it.
How Multi-Tasking Affects our Brains:
From a brain perspective, multi-tasking pressures the brain to shift attention from one activity to another. This means that the prefrontal cortex (our rational brain) and the striatum (a critical component of the motor and reward systems of the brain) end up burning up oxygenated glucose. This is the same substance we use as fuel to stay on a task. This is like hitting the gas and the break at the same time while driving: We deplete our fuel, and wont move that fast. Plus, we won’t be in control of the vehicle in the same way that we would use only the break of the gas. The result is less effectiveness, lower performance, lower quality of work.
Also the continuous shifting that we are engaged in when we are multi-tasking causes the brain to burn its entire fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. By multi-tasking we practically deplete the nutrients in our brain which we need to perform a task properly. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance; another factor resulting in less efficiency, lower performance and deprivation of what it takes to provide quality.
Similar to the previous article on carrot and stick techniques for leaders, the key point here is if you are expecting your employees to perform at their best, you need to focus on three things:
- Give your employees difficult but manageable tasks; challenging, but not overwhelming
- Create an atmosphere where people can enjoy work and tasks (they are two different concepts)
- Help them focus: Refrain from multi-tasking as a role model & don’t ask them to multi-task