E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

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Is Multitasking Bad for the Brain?

Gran Canaria - Municipio de MogánWhat do you reckon? Do you think that, as the title of this blog post suggests, all of us, knowledge Web workers, are damaging our brains when we multitask? I never thought about it myself and I do a fair bit of multitasking during the course of the day, but, apparently, yes!, that seems to be the case. At least, that’s what Professor of Psychiatry and Aging, Gary Small, at UCLA’s School of Medicine, claims over at this Big Think‘s video clip: Is Multitasking Bad for the Brain? If you haven’t watched it, I would suggest you do, specially if you are a chronic multitasker.

The video lasts for nearly four minutes and in it Prof. Small gets to talk about the potential harm from Continuous Partial Attention (a.k.a. CPA) in how our brains operate to the point where we may have become rather fast at completing tasks, while we multitask, but at the same time we have become sloppier in the process. And he surely brings up a rather good point, specially when I, too, realise I have become guilty of such sloppiness, some times, while completing multiple activities at the same time, resolving in me thinking about putting a stop to it. Perhaps not a 100% radical stop, but certainly a good chunk of it. Would you be able to do the same? What do you think?

Here is some additional food for thought on this topic of the potential harm from multitasking. Have you had a chance to go and read through Peter Bregman‘s Harvard Business Review article under the title "How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking?" Or perhaps this other piece from Scientific American under the heading "Portrait of a Multitasking Mind"? Or maybe these other couple of articles by Nick Carr and my good friend Jim McGee under  "Hypermultitasking" and "Asking more relevant questions about focus and multitasking", respectively? They all bring up some good relevant insights on the pros and cons of multitasking in general, with the end result that multitasking itself may eventually be harming us, in the long run, more than whatever we may have thought in the past…

But there are plenty more insights on this very same topic. My good friends Mary Abraham and Jack Vinson have put together some really insightful and thought-provoking blog posts under the titles "Is Multitasking Ethical?" (by Mary) and Multitaskers are lousy at multitasking and "When is multitasking not multitasking" (By Jack) that will surely make you question whether it is really worth while multitasking at all, while you are doing somewhat meaningful tasks / activities. Clive Shepherd takes things even further by hinting that "task switching may just be down to sheer laziness – after all, concentrating is hard". Goodness! Right there you got another worth while reading article on the topic that clearly highlights how poorly we are at effective multitasking, if at all. All of them good reads, for sure!

However, the reflection that really struck me the most, from the very first moment that I was exposed to it, was John Medina‘s wonderful blog post titled "The brain cannot multitask" (From his rather popular Brain Rules book – No, I know! I haven’t read it just yet! But surely plan to soon!). That article alone will surely make you question really hard whether we should continue doing what we, apparently, cannot do very well: multitasking. I am not going to spoil his article over here for you. You should go ahead and read it AND watch both short video clips included in it, because they will be worth while your time to explain the various reasons why we just can’t simply work, effectively enough, in multiple activities at the same time. And his explanation of what the brain goes through is rather revealing of how we seem to keep cheating on ourselves on what we think we can do, but can’t. Amazing stuff!

So does that mean that I will stop myself multitasking altogether? Probably not. Given the current working environment we are all exposed to nowadays I’m not even sure that we would be capable of affording to stop multitasking altogether and for good. However, what I am surely planning to start doing (And I have already started it!) is tackling my biggest source of multitasking, which happens to be one rather common to most knowledge workers out there already: meetings!

Indeed, for the last few meetings I have attended, I have stopped multitasking altogether with everything that may not be related to the subject matter discussed during the meeting itself. So, in a way, I am forcing my brain to pay more attention, to grab focus back again on the various discussions going on those gatherings and to stay alert while interacting with other participants, so I can really get to learn and acquire better that new piece of knowledge. And you know what’s helping quite a lot in this whole experiment? You are probably not going to believe it, but microblogging (Or microsharing, whatever term you would prefer to use).

That’s right! If the nature of the meeting is not too private or sensitive, I’m already starting to make use of my internal microblog to capture notes, insights, reactions, thoughts, potential action items, know-how, etc. etc. with the end result that not only am I staying on track with the overall outcome of the meeting, because all of that writing helps me focus, but at the same time the entire organisation benefits from those clippings, as I am making all of that information available to everyone who may want to tune in. And, even better, I keep learning something new time and time again!

I must say that I just got started with this experiment a couple of days back, but so far it looks incredibly promising, to the point where, funny enough, some of the stress that was coming from multitasking is no longer there either! And I’m starting to enjoy those bursts of highly concentrated productivity time around a particular task that I didn’t have before when I was multitasking throughout those various different meetings. Thus, of course, I’m going to continue doing it and see how things would turn out to be over the course of time. Who knows. Perhaps I may be able to find other chunks of multitasking bursts that I can address and get rid of and since I plan to continue making use of my microblog for that purpose, as well as several other uses, there is a great chance there will be plenty more benefits coming along as time goes by. We will just have to wait and see…

For now though I’m just wondering whether other fellow knowledge workers I interact with on a regular basis would find that acceptable. I mean, the fact that I am not multitasking anymore as much and as often as I used to. What do you think? Will they find it unacceptable that I may not be readily available for unsolicited and unexpected interruptions while I am doing something else? Will I find it acceptable enough for myself to work at a slower pace, but eventually achieve and learn more in the process?

Hummm, those are going to be some interesting questions to answer over time …

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    1. Hi Mary! You are most welcome! Many thanks for dropping by and for the kind comments! Actually, I know of a few folks who usually get to microblog their meetings as a way to capture minutes and action items. In a way, I’m planning to do the same thing, but at the same time capturing whatever other clippings is probably going to be rather beneficial as well and not just about for me, but for the organisation itself.

      Also, one other interesting thing that this capturing of insights would do to help me avoid multitasking would be to identify the good amount of meetings that I’m probably involved and that I shouldn’t. That way, I can really start cutting down on those I don’t need and focus on whatever else.

      Less multitasking eventually overall! Can’t wait! 🙂

      Thanks again for the feedback!

  1. Hey Luis,

    Great Article. For further research check out John Medina and his website Brain Rules. He was the harvard breakthrough thinker in 2008 if memory serves me correctly.

    I am not a nuerologist but based on his videos that are available I would actually say that we task switch, not mutlitask and eventually that is why we fail.

    Loved this post.


  2. Sorry, I could not see everything that was displayed on my netbook so could not see the entire post!!

    Brain rules.net is his site and he has 12 videos in all.



  3. Hey there Luis, great article. One thing that you don’t have to worry about as much but is a major help is to turn off automatic email alerts. That “you have email” pop-up is the worst thing for getting things done. Email can wait until you have a break in your attention. That’s why people email: if they needed your attention right now, they would call or IM. For the love of all that’s good, turn it off! (Ok, I’m being slightly dramatic, but you get the idea)

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