Series on Multi-tasking: Is it all bad?

Not too long ago, multitasking was viewed as a coveted skill among workers. There was a belief that, like computers, employees that could multitask could get more things done in a lesser amount of time. However, what was once viewed as a benefit to workers is now widely seen as harmful to productivity by most experts on the subject.

Recent studies have found that multitasking can negatively affect a worker’s efficiency in performing an assignment. When switching between multiple projects, participants in these studies found it hard to switch mindsets, as each individual project required a different focus area. Participants instead had to spend time readjusting their focus before they could continue on with the new task, or if they could not adjust their mindset their performance in that area would suffer.

The other potentially career-damaging aspect of multitasking is the inability to retain information. According to a study by Stanford University in 2009, workers that “are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention” and are less likely to recall that information soon after.

Generally speaking, the consensus is that multitasking stretches our brain just a little too much in opposing directions. To combat this, workers can find no more than two projects that require a specific mindset to accomplish the tasks at hand. If these employees find that they can maintain focus equally on both projects, they may find that this finely-focused form of dual tasking works perfect for their daily productivity and keeps them interested in the work at hand. This theory was tested by French scientist, Etienne Koechlin, in Scientific American. The results proved that if two tasks were performed at the same time – as long as they interacted with the same ‘side’ of the brain – productivity and motivation were increased among test subjects.

Multitasking can help in other ways too. A constant concern for companies in the modern age is employee dissatisfaction. Ohio University’s Master’s in Business Administration discusses the effect this can have on a company, and the importance of keeping employees engaged, motivated, and productive. Employees that are unhappy or don’t feel ‘fully engaged’ at work can end up causing companies billions of dollars in stolen property, mediocre work, and frequent sick days.

To combat this, some suggest to layer stressful or unsatisfying tasks with more rewarding ones. As one group of researchers found out from a study with students at Ohio State University, students that watched television while studying were actually more productive and happier or “emotionally satisfied.” Although that same scenario of watching television while working can’t be played out in most offices, similar ideas can be applied.

Managers can encourage employees to listen to music, go for a walk while checking emails, or let them spend time at home with their pets and families while they work remotely (not all working parents will find this relaxing, though).

In the end, multitasking can be damaging to productivity, but managers should not discount it completely. Instead, let workers decide for themselves what keeps them engaged at the job and what they feel is the most productive approach for multitasking. Be sure to reiterate the damages of overloading on tasks, but also remember the benefits of dual tasking.

It’s an equation for success: employee engagement + focus = a productive workflow; and happy employees make organizations profitable.


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Unlocking Your Creative Potential: Program on unlocking one’s creative potential for Area Sales Managers of a global Electronics company

We conducted a program on creativity and innovation where we trained their executives up to the middle management level on strategies to unlock their fullest creative potential & make creativity a way of life.

In order to overcome barriers to creativity, this program was designed to give practical insights on how to “think creatively” and work with a solutions mindset. The participants were trained on fundamentally understanding the creative process and structure it efficiently, so that they can be more spontaneous and come up with innovative solutions.

Series on Multi-tasking – Negative outcomes

A 56-year-old man with dementia was admitted to a medical center. His feeding tube needed to be removed from his stomach. It’s a common enough procedure that went fine. But then things went terribly wrong. The culprit: a smartphone. That’s the harrowing conclusion of a recent case study published by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a federal agency, and written by the chief information officer at Harvard Medical School. It’s a nearly deadly example of “distracted doctoring”.

Here, in brief, is a tale of medical multitasking gone wrong:Before the feeding-tube procedure, the doctors increased the patient’s dose of anticoagulation medicine to reduce his risk of stroke. After the procedure, the doctors held a meeting about the case. They decided the patient needed an echocardiogram, a heart image, to determine whether to continue the blood-thinning medication.

During the meeting, the attending doctor instructed the medical resident (a junior doctor) to order the anti-coagulation treatment temporarily stopped. The resident began to enter that order into her phone using a computerized doctor order entry system. These are increasingly common systems that can be used on phones or tablets.

Before the resident could finish the order, her phone beeped with an incoming text. It was from a friend. She got lost in the text and failed to finish the order. The patient continued to get the blood thinner at the elevated dose he was getting before the feeding-tube procedure.

On the patient’s fourth day in the hospital, his heart raced and he was gulping for air. He was rushed into emergency open-heart surgery. Blood had filled the sack around the heart. He’d received too much blood thinner, but he survived.

Dr. John Halamka, who wrote the anonymous case study (name of hospital, patient and doctors withheld), writes that hospitals have to figure a way to balance the benefits of interactive technology with the risks of distraction.“Providers should be ensuring that routine personal issues/interruptions do not impact the delivery of quality care,” he writes.


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Series on Multi-tasking: Monochronic vs. Polychronic

In psychology the monochronic assumption is the idea that it’s always better to complete one task before you start on the next. In research conducted over several decades, Allen Bluedorn has found that, unsurprisingly, it’s a matter of personal preference. Some people favour monochronicity and feel happier completing one task before they start the next. Others are polychronic and perform better when they are doing lots of things at once, and can excel in jobs which require them to do just that.

The research on compulsory multi-tasking is at first sight discouraging. Multi-tasking has a bad name. The problem is something known as attention residue. Experiments have demonstrated that when you switch your attention from one task to another, a bit of your mind is still focused on the previous task. Each time you switch back again you have to remind yourself about what it was you were doing, while dealing simultaneously with the slight distraction from the other task. This can increase your cognitive load.

Many studies over the years have found that in general people are slower and less accurate when they do two tasks at once. This might suggest that the answer is to complete every task one at a time, but this isn’t always the case.

Multi-tasking is hardest when the tasks are similar to each other, but a bit easier if they are different. So while chatting on the phone and writing an email is difficult, because they involve similar thinking processes in order to generate meaningful sentences, talking while playing the piano isn’t as hard.

If the tasks are different enough then multi-tasking can even improve your performance. A study conducted in 2015 at the University of Florida surprised even its authors. People were asked to sit on exercise bikes and to cycle for two minutes at a speed they found comfortable. Later they cycled again, this time with a screen in front of them which presented them with 12 different types of cognitive tests, some of them quite hard.

In the easy tests they had to say the word “go” whenever they saw a blue star on the screen; in the harder tasks they had to memorize long lists of numbers and then recite them in reverse order. They completed similar cognitive tests while sitting on a chair in a room and the researchers compared the results.

When people were sitting on an exercise bike they pedaled 25% faster when given mental problems to solve simultaneously, without doing any worse on the problems. This is a case where distraction seems to be useful. The authors speculate that anticipation of the tasks might have increased arousal in the brain, which also made the people more efficient at cycling.

So multi-tasking may have its downsides, but it isn’t always bad. There are certain circumstances under which we are better at multi-tasking – when we feel relaxed and when we’ve been doing a mentally creative exercise which encourages us to think broadly. (In this study it involved thinking of as many uses as possible for a paper clip, a newspaper, some wool and some upholstery foam.) After this kind of activity people became better at multi-tasking. When the experimenters deliberately made them feel stressed, they were worse at it.


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Series on Multi-tasking: Benjamin Franklin

Let us look at a brief look at the life of Benjamin Franklin. One of the greatest multi-taskers in modern history. His life is proof that multitasking might not be as bad as people say and might even lead to greatness and a legacy that lives on for centuries.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Franklin was a renowned polymath and a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He facilitated many civic organizations, including Philadelphia’s fire department and the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution.

Franklin earned the title of “The First American” for his early and indefatigable campaigning for colonial unity, initially as an author and spokesman in London for several colonies. As the first United States Ambassador to France, he exemplified the emerging American nation. Franklin was foundational in defining the American ethos as a marriage of the practical values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment. In the words of historian Henry Steele Commager, “In a Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.”

To Walter Isaacson, this makes Franklin “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.” Franklin became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette at the age of 23. He became wealthy publishing this and Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he authored under the pseudonym “Richard Saunders”. After 1767, he was associated with the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a newspaper that was known for its revolutionary sentiments and criticisms of the British policies.

He pioneered and was first president of The Academy and College of Philadelphia which opened in 1751 and later became the University of Pennsylvania. He organized and was the first secretary of the American Philosophical Society and was elected president in 1769. Franklin became a national hero in America as an agent for several colonies when he spearheaded an effort in London to have the Parliament of Great Britain repeal the unpopular Stamp Act. An accomplished diplomat, he was widely admired among the French as American minister to Paris and was a major figure in the development of positive Franco-American relations. His efforts proved vital for the American Revolution in securing shipments of crucial munitions from France.

He was promoted to deputy postmaster-general for the British colonies in 1753, having been Philadelphia postmaster for many years, and this enabled him to set up the first national communications network. During the Revolution, he became the first US Postmaster General. He was active in community affairs and colonial and state politics, as well as national and international affairs. From 1785 to 1788, he served as governor of Pennsylvania. He initially owned and dealt in slaves but, by the 1750s, he argued against slavery from an economic perspective and became one of the most prominent abolitionists.

His colorful life and legacy of scientific and political achievement, and his status as one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers have seen Franklin honoured more than two centuries after his death on coinage and the $100 bill, warships, and the names of many towns, counties, educational institutions, and corporations, as well as countless cultural references.


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Series on Multi-tasking: Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci is arguably history’s greatest multi-tasker. Possessor of a curious mind and keen intellect, Da Vinci studied the laws of science and nature, which greatly informed his work as a painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman.

Young Leonardo received little formal education beyond basic reading, writing and mathematics instruction, but his artistic talents were evident from an early age. Around the age of 14, da Vinci began a lengthy apprenticeship with the noted artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. He learned a wide breadth of technical skills including metalworking, leather arts, carpentry, drawing, painting and sculpting. It is thought that Verrocchio was so humbled by the superior talent of his pupil that he never picked up a paintbrush again.

In 1482, Florentine ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici commissioned Da Vinci to create a silver lyre and bring it as a peace gesture to Ludovico Sforza, who ruled Milan as its regent. After doing so, Da Vinci lobbied Ludovico for a job and sent the future Duke of Milan a letter that barely mentioned his considerable talents as an artist and instead touted his more marketable skills as a military engineer. Using his inventive mind, Da Vinci sketched war machines such as a war chariot with scythe blades mounted on the sides, an armored tank propelled by two men cranking a shaft and even an enormous crossbow that required a small army of men to operate. The letter worked, and Ludovico brought Da Vinci to Milan for a tenure that would last 17 years.

Da Vinci began to seriously study anatomy and dissect human and animal bodies during the 1480s. His drawings of a fetus in utero, the heart and vascular system, sex organs and other bone and muscular structures are some of the first on human record. In addition to his anatomical investigations, Da Vinci studied botany, geology, zoology, hydraulics, aeronautics and physics. He filled dozens of notebooks with finely drawn illustrations and scientific observations. A man ahead of his time, da Vinci appeared to prophesize the future with his sketches of machines resembling a bicycle, helicopter and a flying machine based on the physiology of a bat.

Around 1495, Ludovico commissioned Da Vinci to paint “The Last Supper” on the back wall of the dining hall inside the monastery of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie. The masterpiece, which took approximately three years to complete, captures the drama of the moment when Jesus informs the Twelve Apostles gathered for Passover dinner that one of them would soon betray him.

After brief stays in Mantua and Venice, Da Vinci returned to Florence. In 1502 and 1503, he briefly worked as a military engineer for Cesare Borgia, the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI and commander of the papal army. He traveled outside of Florence to survey military construction projects and sketch city plans and topographical maps. He designed plans to divert the Arno River away from rival Pisa in order to deny its wartime enemy access to the sea.

Da Vinci started working in 1503 on what would become his most well known painting—and arguably the most famous painting in the world—the “Mona Lisa.” The privately commissioned work is characterized by the enigmatic smile of the woman in the half-portrait.

Da Vinci moved to Rome in 1513. Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of newly installed Pope Leo X and son of his former patron, gave Da Vinci a monthly stipend along with a suite of rooms at his residence inside the Vatican. His new patron, however, also gave Da Vinci little work. Lacking large commissions, he devoted most of his time in Rome to mathematical studies and scientific exploration.

After being present at a 1515 meeting between France’s King Francis I and Pope Leo X in Bologna, the new French monarch offered Da Vinci the title “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King.” Da Vinci did little painting during his time in France. One of his last commissioned works was a mechanical lion that could walk and open its chest to reveal a bouquet of lilies. He continued work on his scientific studies until his death at the age of 67 on May 2, 1519.

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Series on Multi-tasking: Women vs. Men

It is not a myth – women really are better than men at multitasking, at least in certain cases, a study says. Men were slower and less organised than women when switching rapidly between tasks in tests by UK psychologists. Both sexes struggled to cope with juggling priorities, but men suffered more on average, according to the paper in the journal BMC Psychology.

“If men really are slower than women, it could have serious implications for how workplaces are organised”, says co-author Dr Gijsbert Stoet, of the University of Glasgow. “Multitasking is getting more and more important in the office – but it’s very distracting, all these gadgets interrupting our workflow. It could be that men suffer more from this constant switching,” he told BBC News.

First, they compared 120 women and 120 men in a computer test which involves switching between tasks involving counting and shape-recognition. Men and women were equal when tasks were tackled one at a time. But when the tasks were mixed up there was a clear difference. Both women and men slowed down, and made more mistakes, as the switching became more rapid. But the men were significantly slower – taking 77% longer to respond, whereas women took 69% longer. “This difference may seem small, but it adds up” over a working day or week, said Dr Stoet.

To make the experiment more relevant to everyday life, the researchers tried a second test. A group of women and men were given eight minutes to complete a series of tasks – locating restaurants on a map, doing simple maths problems, answering a phone call, and deciding how they would search for a lost key in a field. Completing all these assignments in eight minutes was impossible – so it forced men and women to prioritize, organize their time, and keep calm under pressure.

In the key search task in particular, women displayed a clear performance advantage over men, says co-author Prof Keith Laws, of the University of Hertfordshire. “Women used methodical search patterns, like going round the field in concentric rectangles. That’s a highly productive strategy for finding a lost object, whereas some men didn’t even search the whole field in any particular manner, which is just bizarre.”

The reason, he observed, was that women were more organised under pressure. “They spent more time thinking at the beginning, whereas men had a slight impulsiveness, they jumped in too quickly,” said Prof Laws. “It suggests that – in a stressed and complex situation – women are more able to stop and think about what’s going on in front of them.”

Altogether, they conclude that women “have an advantage over men” in multitasking, at least in certain situations.

“And of course there are men who are experts. We’d never claim that all men can’t multitask, or that only women can. But we’d argue the average woman is better able to organise her time and switch between tasks than the average man.”

“In a world where people increasingly have to multitask, we need to help individuals adapt their roles to their abilities”, said Prof Laws. “Of course I don’t think we should just assign women to roles where rapid switching is demanded,” he explained. “Instead, employers should consider assessing individuals’ ability in multitasking, as some firms already do. Because the truth is – people don’t seem to be very good at assessing themselves,” Prof Laws told BBC News.


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Series on Multi-tasking: Media multitaskers

To date, there has been a lot of publicity about the detrimental aspects of media multitasking – using more than one form of media or technology simultaneously. Especially prevalent in young people, this could be instant messaging, music, web surfing, e-mail, online videos, computer games or social networking. But does this cognitive style have any advantages?

Our obsession with multiple forms of media is not necessarily all bad news, according to a new study by Kelvin Lui and Alan Wong from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Their work shows that those who frequently use different types of media at the same time appear to be better at integrating information from multiple senses – vision and hearing in this instance – when asked to perform a specific task. This may be due to their experience of spreading their attention to different sources of information while media multitasking. Their study is published online in Springer’s Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Research has demonstrated impairments during certain cognitive tasks involving task switching, selective attention and working memory, both in the laboratory and in real-life situations. This type of cognitive impairment may be due to the fact that multitaskers tend to pay attention to various sources of information available in their environment, without sufficient focus on the information most relevant to the task at hand.

Lui and Wong’s study explored the differences between media multitaskers’ tendency and ability to capture information from seemingly irrelevant sources. In particular, they assessed how much two different groups (frequent multitaskers and light multitaskers) could integrate visual and auditory information automatically.

A total of 63 participants, aged 19-28 years, took part in the experiment. They completed questionnaires looking at their media usage – both time spent using various media and the extent to which they used more than one at a time. The participants were then set a visual search task, with and without synchronous sound, i.e. a short auditory pip, which contained no information about the visual target’s location, but indicated the instant it changed colour.

On average, participants regularly received information from at least three media at the same time. Those who media multitasked the most tended to be more efficient at multisensory integration. In other words, they performed better in the task when the tone was present than when it was absent. They also performed worse than light media multitaskers in the tasks without the tone. It appears that their ability to routinely take in information from a number of different sources made it easier for them to use the unexpected auditory signal in the task with tone, leading to a large improvement in performance in the presence of the tone.

The authors conclude: “Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing.”


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Series on Multi-tasking: The eternal dilemma

The modern world’s dilemma that confronts most people is how to fit in the maximum in a limited hours day. Multi-tasking is touted as the most coveted quality that a professional can possess. But is it really so necessary and more importantly does it really lead to achieving ‘more’ work done or works counter productively?

To get some answers, let’s define multi-tasking and then discover some pros and cons associated with it. A 2013 study that required participants to perform cognitive tasks while sitting in a quiet room and again while cycling found that their cycling speed was faster while performing the cognitive tasks, with the most improvement during the six easiest cognitive tasks. As the cognitive tasks got harder, they started impinging on the amount of attention available to perform both tasks, so participants didn’t cycle quite so fast.

Our point? There are some profits to reap by multi-tasking. Today, it has evolved into different versions too.

• The first one is genuine multitasking: speaking on the phone and checking our bank accounts online; speaking to a colleague and filling out an office form. Genuine multitasking is possible, but at least one of the tasks needs to be so practiced as to be done without thinking.

• Then there’s task switching, needed when you, let’s say, face the challenge of creating a presentation for your boss while also fielding phone calls for your boss and keeping an eye on email in case your boss wants you.

• Task switching is often confused with a third, quite different activity — the guilty pleasure of disappearing down an never-ending click-hole of celebrity gossip and social media updates. “What we’re often calling multitasking is in fact internet addiction,” says Shelley Carson, a psychologist and author of Your Creative Brain. “It’s a compulsive act, not an act of multitasking.”

• A final kind of multitasking isn’t a way of getting things done but simply the condition of having a lot of things to do. The car needs to be taken in for a service. The nanny can’t pick up the kids from school today. Having a lot of things to do is not the same as doing them all at once. It’s just life.

RescueTime, a company that analyzes computer habits and draws its data from 40,000 people who have tracking software on their computers, found that on average the worker also stops at 40 Web sites over the course of the day. The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according to research firm Basex. The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work.

So, what are some insights that we can derive from the above data? There are certain conditions in which multi-tasking should be exercised, as it has some short-term benefits.


1.Simple tasks allow for a fast switch in mental focus.

2.Multitasking provides progression on multiple duties that must be performed.

3.It creates a habit of adaptability.

4.It allows for sanity within a world of chaos.


1.Multitasking leaves less time for recreation.

2.There is a limited amount of energy every day.

3.It eliminates certain personal skills.

4.It becomes more difficult to accomplish something that is important.

So what is your multitasking style and is it helping or hindering you to get the important things done?


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