Have electronic gadgets hihjacked your brain and turned you into a multitasking mutant? Photo: Erin Jonasson
Are electronic gadgets hijacking our brains and turning us into multitasking mutants at work?
Okay, perhaps I've over-stated things just a little – but I wanted to grab your attention because chances are I won't have it for much longer. That's because you probably suffer from 'Constant Partial Attention' or CPA. A splintering of your focus caused by the constant barrage of distractions that hits us all day, every day.
Earlier this week, we heard some of the reasons why smart people underperform when they are held hostage by their mobile phones 24-hours a day. But even if you are able to switch off after work - your performance can still be affected by the constant barrage of messages throughout the working day.
Linda Stone, a former US information technology executive, came up with the term Constant Partial Attention. She says the condition manifests when you give 20 per cent focus to sending an email, 20 per cent concentration to the colleague who sits next to you, 15 per cent to your mobile, 5 per cent on the flashing Skype icon on the bottom of your screen; another 5 per cent on what you're going to eat for lunch, etc.
Few of us are immune because the average worker now gets 1 interruption every 5 minutes, which amounts to 80 to 90 interruptions a day. Making matters worse it can take up to 25 minutes to work your way back to the original task and get back into what psychologists call flow.
But don't worry, you're not alone.
Let me tell you how I would have written this blog a number of years ago (before I learned to manage the multitasking mutant, tame the technology temptress and disburse the distraction demon).
-Open a word document and start crafting the story.
-Bing, email alert so immediately check, could be really important! Mario, Eggo and Deano catching up for a surf on the weekend – email back 'awesome guys, count me in...woo hoo!'
-Back to writing document.
-Meep meep – text message from my office about our staff dinner tomorrow night. 'Looking forward to it' I text back to Christie.
-Brain hurting a little (could it possibly have anything to do with the never-ending distractions?) so decide to check weather forecast on my iPhone.
-Start reading through the blog again and decide after 10 minutes I'll see if I've got any more updates on LinkedIn and a quick check to see if there's anything exciting on Twitter.
-Grab a cup of coffee to fire up the axons and dendrites in an attempt to re-focus.
If you found yourself reading and saying "I think he's talking about me", then welcome to the club. Your CPA membership awaits you...
The science behind all of this is that when writing documents or doing work that we actually have to think about, our minds have a subconscious filter which searches for distractions any time we encounter a sentence or structure that requires cognitive functioning (hard thinking) or critical analysis. It's a built in 'easy way out'.
So we pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour that builds an artificial sense of constant crisis.
There is considerable evidence to suggest 'multitasking' is a misnomer and the brain doesn't simultaneously process work, but rapidly switches between various activities. Only tasks that are highly practiced or automatic (like driving a car) can be performed simultaneously with other actions.
That's why when you try to engage in multiple activities at once, you actually process information more slowly and less accurately.
So the gadgets designed to lighten our loads actually ensnare us. The continually binging, buzzing, alarms and alerts readily disrupt our thoughts, our productivity and even disrupt our private lives.
But there is a way out of multitasking mania. And the way out will require a totally different mindset for some people.
The key is to stop multitasking – it just doesn't work when you need to focus and be productive. Although you definitely need the ability to be able to manage a number of different projects and tasks, to do it well you must break the habit of trying to do them all at the same time.
Productive people have developed the focus and discipline to be able to work on one project at a time. Sure, run multiple projects, but get into the habit of only paying attention to one project at a time. Give it your full energy and attention before moving onto the next task and watch your output go into overdrive.
Turn off email pop-up alerts. Don't let email control your day, check them five or six times a day rather than every three minutes. At night, turn off mobiles, Blackberry's, TV for a set amount of time and actually try talking to the people you live with.
Batch processing or chunking
This is not a new term, but for many people it is a new skill. Chunking involves working on similar tasks together. (Example: Writing all your proposals in one hit, locking out 2 hours to complete a project report, or blocking all your inner city meetings back to back on a Wednesday afternoon. Put a do not disturb sign on your office door or work station if you have to).
Daily warm up
Spending 10 to 15 minutes at the start of the working day is a great way to get clarity on the most important tasks that need to be completed today. Then control your time as much as possible and focus on your action list.
To change your ways will require you to reengineer the way you work. But I guarantee after a few teething problems, you'll be amazed at how much control you actually can have over the way you work and the way you spend your time outside of work.
Gotta fly – my iPhone is calling.
Are your electronic gadgets turning you into a multitasking mutant - or have you tamed the distraction beast?
Reclaim your brain