Multi-tasking: Tuning out the noise

Cyber-era multi-tasking may be hazardous to a company’s health.

“It’s not possible to multi-task.” Or so says Winifred Gallagher, the author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. According to her, our brains just aren’t wired to focus intently on more than one thing at a time, and that means stressed managers and employees could be making easily preventable mistakes. Ultimately, that’s a waste of everyone’s time.

Gallagher became a student of the art of focus after contracting breast cancer in 2003. She says training her attention got her through the illness, while also juggling a job, a husband and five kids, among other things. But it’s hard for employees to focus when companies are shrinking their workforces and forcing everyone to take on more duties. Yet, if Gallagher is right that having employees tackle many tasks at once is actually counterproductive, managers should devote more time to helping them tune out extraneous digital noise in order to pay closer attention, in sequence, to the tasks at hand.

“I was giving a talk at Microsoft,” Gallagher says. “It was like a scene of prairie gophers: I’d be speaking, and heads would be bobbing up and down, alternately paying attention to me and checking BlackBerrys. One of the executives told me he’s attended major meetings where they block the Internet to ensure everyone takes in what’s being discussed.”

Such bans might sound draconian, but David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, whom Gallagher cites in her book, believes they could be useful. “If you’re trying to listen to someone while typing an e-mail,” he says, “something has to give.”

Once distracted by an e-mail or call, the average person takes about 20 minutes to reboot the brain to what it was doing before, says Gallagher. That’s 20 minutes of lost productivity. Even worse, “Research has shown that switching rapidly between tasks actually makes a person more error-prone,” Gallagher says.

Managers can employ several tricks to help employees focus. One is to create a working culture where it’s understood that employees don’t always have to respond immediately to cellphone messages, texts or e-mails. For example, Gallagher disables the pop-up graphic that tells her when she’s received e-mail. Encouraging employees to check messages or e-mail only once or twice a day may also help. “What people forget is that it’s possible to turn these machines off,” Gallagher says.

Of course, it’s often neither appropriate nor possible for workers to disengage from their machines. In those situations, Gallagher recommends mindful meditation: spending 20 minutes a day training your mind to focus on only one thing.

“It’s like going to the gym and doing a physical workout, but instead of building your cardio fitness, you’re building your brain’s ability to zero in on one thing,” Gallagher says.

In doing so, employees can learn to tune the cyber-babble out and actually focus on what needs to be done, instead of trying to be all things to all people.