Cognitive Fitness Chapter 11 – Is multi tasking a myth?

Our latest research looks at the factors that most impact our cognitive performance – so individuals and organisations can understand and adopt best practices to get everyone’s brain in peak condition. Recent blogs have been considering environmental factors such as noise and temperature. This time we consider the effect of task interruptions…

For most of us, dealing with interruptions is not something we can overcome, it’s literally an inevitable part of life! Interruptions to our workflow and our thought processes can have serious impacts on our performance and productivity, whether they are caused by someone stopping by our desk / office for a conversation, a phone call, a text or IM, or the inevitable bing bong as an email arrives and flashes up on our screen.

In specific settings such as the operating theatre or where people are in charge of a large and powerful vehicle like a car, lorry or aeroplane – the consequences of interruptions could be life threatening, of course.

What happens when we’re interrupted?

Studies have shown that on average we shift between tasks every 3 minutes. Just think about that figure….it’s shocking isn’t it?

So anyone trying to work on a task requiring prolonged focus and concentration really is fighting a losing battle! The train of thought on our primary task is interrupted by a phone call, email from the boss, IM from an important colleague with a crisis, someone arriving at the desk to ask a question or a whole host of other visual or audible distractions – wherever we are working.

Our brain has to leave its train of thought to deal with the interruption – which could take many minutes to deal with – only to then need at least an equal amount of time to resume the train of thought (to re-activate the thinking) that was going on prior to the interruption.

How long will it be before the next interruption??

Why is focus important for our brains?

All of these interruptions mean that it takes longer to complete any task and the chances are that something vital in the thought process could be lost, never to be regained (you just can’t recapture that idea that was forming before the interruption), or you are forced to complete the task without the benefit of considered thought or the quality that comes through focus and dedicated attention.

Naturally the impact varies depending upon the nature of the task being undertaken, how long it was the subject of focus prior to the interruption and the length and type of the interruption itself. So if you’ve been working on a complex report for 20 minutes and you stop for 10 secs to respond to an IM, you can probably get back into the zone quickly if the interruption only lasts a few seconds. If the IM exchange lasts 5 minutes, your memory of what you were working on starts to degrade – particularly if the nature of the interruption demands the same level of “cognitive resources” as the primary task you were working on. Research has shown that the level of degradation doesn’t necessarily increase the longer the interruption is – which implies that the damage has been done, but all is not necessarily lost!

It has also been shown that the degree to which you can keep connected to the original task is probably helped by still having it “in view”. So if you are having an IM discussion but keep flicking back to your draft report, you can resume the work more quickly.

Can we really multi task?

Many people claim to be able to “multi task” and it is generally referred to as a desirable skill in today’s modern workplace. That said, what often happens is that none of the tasks are allocated the time / effort / focus that they need for successful completion – with each one being completed in slightly longer time and slightly less well / thoroughly / accurately.

The degree to which this is important depends on the nature of the job and the tasks being carried out, of course. However, you probably know yourself that if you can concentrate on one task at a time, you’ll finish it quicker and “better” if you’re not interrupted.

So it’s all a giant balancing act really. Often we prioritise the interruption over the primary task. Whether we do this through conscious thought or simply from a desire to be responsive / available to others (or because the interruption is more interesting than the task!) is an interesting point to ponder.

What is the cost to productivity and accuracy? Studies have shown that even an interruption of a few seconds can lead to errors – which although they might not be life threatening in most people’s jobs, presumably are compounded the more this goes on.

cognitive performance - multitasking - interruptions - awa - advanced workplace associates - workplace management

So what can you do to manage interruptions?

  1. Get into the habit of checking your email / voicemail at regular intervals during the day – but turn them off in between. Being “always available” means you never get to focus – ask yourself (and discuss with your team) what would be more acceptable?
  2. Adopt a strategy for managing your “interrupters” – don’t let them steal your time. Check out MindTools ideas for handling interruptions, including setting available and unavailable time boundaries – once you’ve done some analysis to understand the nature of the interruptions you are getting and agree some practices with your team / manager
  3. Agree with your team colleagues the things that justify interrupting each other if you are really trying to concentrate (a triage approach to determine things that have top priority). A lady in a recent workshop said her boss wore a tiara when she didn’t want to be interrupted….it seemed to work, but make sure not to abuse this with your colleagues!
  4. Make good on your promises to get back to people later if that is the trade you offer for not being able to talk to them now
  5. Recognise if you have a tendency to do the “easy stuff” first – delaying more difficult / challenging tasks. This can give you a short term high (something ticked off the To-do list!) but often means that the demanding tasks have to be done when you have depleted energy and focus (and probably still have the same number of interruptions to cope with!).
  6. If you are a manager / supervisor, a big part of your job is to be there for your team. However, that doesn’t mean “always available”, but it DOES mean ensuring you spend enough time with each person to ensure they are supported. It’s a balance.
  7. Don’t be a slave to the “multi-tasking” bandwagon. Don’t settle for doing everything worse than you would do if you were focused and gave each task what it deserves.

If you are responsible for workplace delivery in your organisation – think about creating distraction free areas within the office – where the norm is quiet working with no phone calls permitted….and where it’s OK to turn off your email and IM / reminders. You might also want to provide some of the above info to people in your business, so they understand more about the impact of interruptions on the quality of the work they do. Maybe even dig into the science a bit more yourself!

Give your brain a great day – try to focus on one thing at a time to do your best work!

Next time we’ll look at another environmental factor that came out of the research. This is the ninth factor – Workplace Lighting – and it’s no surprise that we need “good” light for focus and concentration!