The Art of Mindful Multitasking

In today’s dynamic business climate, executives are bombarded with scores of distracting stimuli while trying to get stuff done. Recently, the “Wall Street Journal” stated that as screens multiply and organizations push frazzled workers to do more with less, the ill effects of distraction create a serious issue that impacts the average organization’s bottom line significantly.

Information technology research firm Basex conducted research in 2006 on 1,000 workers, and estimated that distractions consume almost 30 percent of workers’ time – costing the U.S. economy a whopping $588 billion dollars per year. Now, more than 10 years later and much more distraction from social media, wearable technology, and so on, that number could be considerably higher

Recently, Gloria Mark, an associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, observed a sample of workers and recorded their movements for three full days. In her research, she discovered that workers spend on average just 11 minutes on a task before being distracted.

What’s even more astonishing is that it takes the average worker 23 minutes to finally get back on task again. What this research suggests is that the average worker spends just 22 minutes per hour working on a specific task! Interestingly, in Marks’ study, slightly more than half of the distractions came from external stimuli, such as emails, text messages, phone-calls, and people, while slightly less than half were from internal stimuli, such as being lost in thought or focusing on discomforts such as back pain and neck pain.

Compounding the loss of performance from distractions is the amount of valuable energy that’s wasted when we shift our attention from one task to another and then back again, which tends to be more the norm than the exception in today’s workplace.

It goes without saying that when attempting to pursue multiple objectives simultaneously in the workplace costs a tremendous amount of resources. Switching from task to task requires a greater amount of energy for the brain than simply completing one task before the other. The brain must expend energy to disengage from one task, then expend more energy to shift focus, then expend still more energy to engage with the alternating task.

 

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Upon a request from the “New York Times,” researchers from Carnegie Mellon University set out to investigate just how much energy is lost during our attempts to alternate attention versus when we single-task. The results of the research were astonishing. The researchers tested 136 participants and discovered that when we alternate our attention, we make 20 percent more mistakes than when we complete one task at a time.

Furthermore, the unnecessary wastage of valuable energy while task-switching is likely taking its toll on our health, as increasing numbers of executives today are suffering from emotional exhaustion and burnout.

A 2012 publication of the International Journal of Stress Management reported the results of research investigating the relationship between employee exhaustion and counterproductive work behaviors. These behaviors ranged from low motivation to complete work tasks, tardiness, gossiping, aggression and sabotage. What they found was a direct correlation between the degree of employee exhaustion and the number of these previously mentioned, counterproductive behaviors – and it affected the entire organization.

It goes without saying that many organizations and executives today still mistakenly value being able to perform multiple tasks simultaneously as a benchmark for performance. Yet if we were able to decrease the amount of mindless multitasking attempts in the workplace, and replace them with systematic mindful multi-tasking approaches, employees would surely experience greater levels of energy and properly get much more done in a day.

Multi-Tasking Is A Phenomenon That Is Here To Stay

In saying that, we also have to realistically acknowledge that Multi-Tasking as potentially damaging as it might seem, is a phenomenon that is here to stay. The reason for this, according to recent research from Ohio State University is because when we multi-task, we actually feel more satisfied and motivated, even if this is at the cost of our overall productivity. The same reward centers in the brain, which are responsible for making us feel temporarily better when we eat junk food, smoke, and drink alcohol, even at the cost of our health, are also involved when we give in to the temptation to multi-task.

Much like telling a person who is addicted to drugs, smoking, or alcohol, they should stop their habit, will not guarantee they will actually stop. Therefore, simply telling ourselves that we should eliminate multi-tasking from our lives and replacing it with single-tasking would not be practical in today’s high paced world.

However, one strategy that is beginning to show great promise in the treatment of drug addiction, and may be helpful here is the practice of mindfulness during multitasking. In a recent publication in the Open Journal Of Medical Psychology researchers concluded that mindfulness during treatment increases the success rate of treatment. It is therefore plausible that practicing mindfulness during multitasking may possibly decrease the number of errors and loss of productivity caused by mindless multitasking.

For that reason, I would like to share with you 3 mindful multitasking strategies that may help you during your days in the office while inundated by distracting stimuli.

1.    Practice Self Awareness During Mindful Multi-Tasking

In my opinion, there’s nothing worse than feeling like the day is taking its own course and I’m merely a passenger letting it take me wherever it wants to go, only to end the day feeling like I didn’t get anything done I had set out to do in the first place. On the other hand, I tend to feel most productive when I feel in control of my own schedule and I’m able to attend to those tasks I want to address on my terms. A feeling of self-centeredness and self-control, even when the world around us is in chaos, can be a very satisfying feeling.

Our ability to remain in a state of centeredness, during times of chaos, starts with an elevated level of self-awareness. To become more effective mindful multi-tasker, we must be fully aware of our presence, feelings, and our emotions, which in turn will allow us to be fully present in the task we are performing at that moment.

Then, at that moment when another stimulus enters our minds, either from the external world, such as emails, phone calls, or people, or our internal world, such as distracting thoughts, feelings and emotions, we need to be fully aware of that stimulus entering our consciousness. Our ability to be fully self-aware during that stimulus or distractor, will enable us to address how that distractor is affecting us emotionally and thus set the stage for step 2.

2.    Slow Down, Breathe, and Accept

One temptation, during multi-tasking, is to mindlessly react to the situation and thus give the situation permission to take control of your consciousness. Instead of reacting mindlessly to that email, phone call, or even colleague, take a step back and take 3 deep breaths.

During your breathing, instead of feeling annoyed, or frustrated about the situation you are in, allow yourself to relax and calm down. Take those 3 breaths to remove any negative thoughts, and instead accept this distraction into your mind without judgment or frustration.

Reciprocating in frustration costs our brains precious energy that we could be using to be productive. On the hand, consciously accepting the distraction, without the negative feelings will allow you to feel in control of the situation and remain centered, no matter what the distraction might be.

3.    Switch Tasks In Full Consciousness

Rapidly switching from one task to another requires a 3-step process of first disengagingfrom one task, then shifting our attention to the other task, and then finally to engage in that second task. All 3 of these steps costs the brain energy and researchers claim it costs the brain up to almost 40% of its resources to shift from one task to another.

This could be greatly magnified if we spend our days mindlessly switching from one task to another resulting in us getting less done and making more mistakes (even when we don’t know it), not to think of getting home at night feeling like a complete zombie.

When performing a specific task, try to be fully present in that task. Even through the human brain only has limited capacity to remain fully engaged in 1 task for a specific amount of time, try to train your brain to stretch that amount of time to its max.

Each time, a thought or distractor enters your consciousness, take that step back, do your deep breathing and assess whether the distractor is worth the energy. If it is, be fully present in switching tasks. Consciously see yourself disengaging from task one, then during your deep breathing guide your attention to the second task and consciously zone in on the second task so you are fully present in the second task. If the distractor is a human being put your phone down, close your laptop and practice being 100% present in what that person has to say.

Then, repeat the switching process by consciously disengaging from the conversation, consciously shifting your attention back to your first task and mindfully connecting with your first task to continue where you left off.

The ability to consciously switch tasks will minimize the delay of trying to figure out where you left off and will also minimize the amount of energy lost during the task switching.

So, the next time you find yourself, or you recognize your colleagues, in a state of frantic task switching, take a step back and try to apply these 3 simple strategies, and hopefully it will help you, as it does me in my work.

Marcel is the author of the internationally acclaimed book: Headstrong Performance. He is considered one of the foremost authorities on integrating health and neuroscience to improve mental resilience, leadership capacity, employee engagement, and organizational performance.   The son of a decorated Political Activist, Marcel’s credentials range from a Master’s degree in Neuroscience and Leadership combined with an undergraduate...

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