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Performance Factors of Self-Care: Killing the Myth of Multitasking

Posted on June 9, 2017

The brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time. We think we can complete a task just as efficiently and effectively while checking e-mail, returning phone calls, posting on Facebook, texting, and talking to a co-worker about their weekend plans. Unfortunately, this is not how the brain works.

Every time we shift energy to another task, we are activating a different area of the brain. This shift takes additional energy, in the form of oxygen and glucose. Then, when we shift back to the original task, we use more energy to refocus.

Brains have limited energy. Shifting from one thing to another in rapid succession takes energy away from getting anything done. We have a choice: do one thing well and to completion, or do many things poorly and struggle to get anything done.

We have a hunter/gatherer brain in a Twitter/Facebook world. Hunting and gathering was a singular focus – to secure food. When our ancestors were on the hunt or gathering food, they were not safe. As they collected food to feed, they were also in danger of becoming food themselves.

This evolutionary reality helped us to develop a brain designed to scan the environment for any novel or interesting stimulus. So, while most of you don’t work in an environment where a tiger could attack while you are completing your progress notes, the brain is still constantly scanning the environment for stimulus. People are no longer in danger of being eaten at work, but when the phone rings or an email notification beeps, the brain gets very excited and will use energy to shift focus to that new stimulus. To get something done, we need to give the brain the opportunity to focus, but the brain will be distracted if there’s a distraction to be had.

Studies show that interrupting a person’s work reduces their cognitive ability by 10 IQ points, which is equal to missing a night’s sleep, or three times worse than smoking cannabis. Research has shown that the average worker focuses on a task for only 11 minutes before they’re interrupted by a distraction. Maybe more detrimental is the fact that it takes the average worker 25 minutes to return to this task (Tony Schwartz, 2010, David Rock, 2009).

What does this mean for the workday? For the average worker, distractions eat up 2.1 hours each day. That’s right, over one quarter of an eight-hour workday is lost. This might be a little different if you are seeing clients or teaching for a good portion of the day. But even if this is a half-hour, it’s still thirty minutes you could use to get work off your desk, or maybe even go home after working just 8 hours! Is having e-mail up, a cell phone buzzing and co-workers stopping by to talk about their dates worth a wasted 2.1 hours, 10 IQ points and all the stress of being behind in one’s work?

Here are some suggestions to optimize focus and combat fatigue on both an individual and group level. Look around your work environment and eliminate any potential distractions. Now, if doing any of this will cause a crisis in the organization, PLEASE do not do it. It is likely, though, that some of the following suggestions will be possible.

If possible when doing reports, notes, or other paperwork, turn off both professional and personal e-mail. These are efficiency killers, especially when a sound also accompanies a visual alert. Just shut down the e-mail and have a plan to check it later. The world will most likely survive.

A fun side effect I found when not answering every e-mail right when it comes in is that I get a lot fewer e-mails. People love to connect, way more than they like doing treatment plans. By not responding to an e-mail the minute it is received, conversations become more meaningful and to the point. Waiting an hour slows the conversation down, and instead of ten e-mails back and forth, we become more mindful of each other’s responses and, in return, give more detailed responses back. Also, things that seem incredibly important one minute can become not-so-important after someone has some time and space to consider the problem themselves.

Cell phones are sold as productivity wonders, and in many ways they are, but not when we are trying to get through a task. Unless you are on call, it is unlikely your co-workers need an immediate response to every call, e-mail, and text. If possible, turn off the ring and vibrate (do this to your office phone too if you can) when sitting down to accomplish a task, and watch your productivity soar.

The internet is well-designed to suck the energy out of our brains. All in one place, a person can follow their favorite team, read gossip about their favorite celebrities, talk to their mom, order themselves a great new pair of shoes, plan their weekend, watch March Madness, find a soulmate, and take in every movie ever made. This is all great, unless work needs to get done. The good thing about the internet is that it will be there when the work is finished, and we can enjoy it more when our paperwork is filed and our deadlines are met.

Next, we need to take a good look around our workspace. Chaos is distracting. There is no need to be spotless, but for the brain’s sake, there at least should not be a mountain of work between you and your monitor.

There are enough distractions in the workplace without finding a two-month-old sandwich under a stack of journals from the 90s. Many clients struggle with chaos in their own lives, and a clean and organized workspace can help them stay focused and feel safe. If we need to clear out three feet of paperwork from a chair before the client can even sit down, it’s not a good sign that we are someone who is organized enough to help them with their struggles.

The above strategies are difficult to implement without team support. If you do all the individual strategies, but co-workers are constantly stopping by to chat, it’s all for nothing. Take time as a team to figure out a way to communicate a “do not disturb” message to co-workers. Sometimes, this is as easy as closing an office door or putting on headphones, and other times people need to be more creative. The key here is to signal to teammates that you have work to do and want to focus on that right now without disruptions. Of course, if there is an emergency, that’s different, but the things that can wait need to wait. Teams can work together to brainstorm signals that works best in their environment.

These strategies are in no way intended to deter people from connecting on a personal and professional level with fellow employees. What is known as water cooler talk, or non-work-related conversations, increases overall productivity in an office setting. The key is balance. Some social interaction will happen spontaneously as people run into each other in the hall or break room. Teams can also try to schedule time to connect. Going to lunch, walks around the block during a break, or working out together at lunchtime are great ways to encourage needed social interaction. The more people schedule time to interact, the less these conversations interrupt their workflow and the more they get done.

The same technology that helped create booms in worker productivity and efficiency also can burn us out and prevent us from getting anything done! The problem is not the technology, it is how we use it. I want to open up the comment section for you to add any struggles or strategies that help you get the work done.

2 responses to “Performance Factors of Self-Care: Killing the Myth of Multitasking”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think this article completely contradicts itself. It states how “bad” it is for people to be distracted at work and at the end it states that we actually need these connections to survive in the work place. Obviously, there needs to be a balance; however, I really think it depends on the person. Some people can really multi-task more than others. Also, the study stating that smoking pot is more productive than having a conversation with a co-worker or checking an e-mail is ridiculous.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think this article completely contradicts itself. It states how “bad” it is for people to be distracted at work and at the end it states that we actually need these connections to survive in the work place. Obviously, there needs to be a balance; however, I really think it depends on the person. Some people can really multi-task more than others. Also, the study stating that smoking pot is more productive than having a conversation with a co-worker or checking an e-mail is ridiculous.

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