So you think you can multi-task?

EAs are faced with complex problems, competing urgent demands and priorities every day. As a result, your mind receives too much input, experiences stress and doesn’t know what to do. Petris Lapis has some great advice to remedy these problems.

In an effort to overcome mental overload, your brain attempts to do multiple things at the same time; it attempts to multi-task.

Researchers have found that, apart from rote physical tasks such as walking or eating, the brain can’t do two things at once. When it comes to cognitive tasks, your brain does what it thinks is the next best thing and switches between tasks as fast as it can. If you try to take notes in a meeting and draft an email at the same time, your brain can only focus on one at a time. While you focus on the email, you are missing the meeting and vice versa. While your mind is switching between the meeting and the email, you are not focused on either.

Multi-tasking in a work environment can be when things get overlooked and mistakes are made. It may be the moment you miss a piece of information vital to your boss’s trip because you were proof reading a month end report while talking on the phone.

If you multi-task, you will look busy, but you may not be very productive. Participants in a University of Michigan study were asked to write a report and check email at the same time. They took one and a half times longer to finish than people who did the same two tasks sequentially. People who are multi-tasking also make twice as many errors as people who aren’t.

Multi-tasking is mentally draining. Researcher Glenn Wilson found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task while an email is sitting unread in your inbox can lower your effective IQ by 10 points. (This is more than twice the loss found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana.) Multi-tasking is so bad for you that researcher, Harold Pashler found the mental capacity of a Harvard graduate can drop to that of an eight-year-old when asked to perform two cognitive tasks at once (talking on the phone while typing a document).

Break the habit
It can be difficult to break the multi-tasking habit because you miss the dopamine squirts. To start practising, here are some tips:
– Drive without listening to the radio sometimes, so you just focus on the driving
– Don’t take unnecessary electronic devices into meetings so you focus on the meeting
– Put your phone in your drawer
– Have your email in offline mode or turn o the pop-up alerts
– Don’t do other tasks while speaking the phone. Give the caller your full attention (taking notes of the call is Ok, checking your email is not)

“Multi-tasking is a terrible coping mechanism. A body of scientific evidence demonstrates fairly conclusively that multi-tasking makes human beings less productive, less creative and less able to make good decisions. If we want to be effective, we need to stop” Derek Dean and Caroline Webb.

Stanford University set out to research the bene ts of multi-tasking and couldn’t find any, but it did find a lot of disadvantages including it is less efficient, mores stressful, takes longer, more mistakes and becomes habitual.

Even worse is that multi-tasking becomes habitual and addictive. The more you do it, the more you tend to do it because your brain craves the squirt of dopamine it gets each time you switch tasks. You can become so addicted to multi-tasking that, for example, you must check emails while on a date, on the toilet, in bed or even at the movies.

Can we get better at multi-tasking? We can become better at multi-tasking, but generally only with tasks that are automatic and not tasks that require you to use language, for example, emailing and speaking on the phone at the same time.


Petris Lapis has worked in accounting, law, academia, banking, business and training. She has consulted to government and industry and published several books and hundreds of papers. She has studied commerce, law, coaching, NLP and hypnosis. Petris is a rower, a coach and a mum to two teenagers. She loves warm sunny days, great food, laughter, exercise and moments of calm