Taking multi-tasking to task


While you are reading this, you are likely to get distracted by an incoming email, a colleague who needs a word with you, or a phone that is ringing. And according to research, chances are high that your attention will follow the distraction, and you will find yourself caught up in something else before finishing this article.

If this scenario rings a bell, you are part of a modern work-life that is characterised by distractibility, complexity, pressure and information overload, which results in decreased performance, wellbeing and productivity.

No matter where I travel in the world, leaders and employees in organisations report that their attention is under constant crossfire. Emails, phone calls, meetings, text messages and colleagues are constantly requiring their focus.

Leading to less productive workers

Neurologically, this situation is interesting. The brain’s reaction to multiple tasks at the same time is to try to solve them all at once. It starts to multi-task. But does multi-tasking really make us more efficient and effective? Is this really the best way to respond to the demands of a fast-paced, high-stress work environment?

Numerous research studies conclude that multi-tasking makes us less productive and more susceptible to errors and increased stress. In 2009 Eyal Ophir at Stanford University conducted one of the most conclusive studies, finding that multi-tasking leads to more mistakes and requires longer time to perform a task.

In the 2011 McKinsey Quarterly, an article titled ‘Recovering from Information Overload’ concluded that: “Multi-tasking is a terrible coping mechanism. A body of scientific evidence demonstrates conclusively that multi-tasking makes humans less productive, less creative, and less able to make good decisions. If we want to be effective, we need to stop.”

Strategic HR tool

Some companies have taken the approach to heart as a strategic HR tool to enhance wellbeing, performance and productivity, and researchers have studied the results. Among others, Professor Jochen Reb from Singapore Management University found that a corporate-mindfulness implementation leads to an increase in job performance, job satisfaction, work-life balance, organisational citizenship behaviour and the ability to be focused. He has also found a significant decrease in emotional exhaustion, stress and turnover intention.

Technically, mindfulness is about taking control of our thoughts and being more present with what we are doing. It entails managing our mind rather than letting our mind manage us. The mind is like a muscle; it can be strengthened and toned and make us more present. And it can be trained to more effectively engage in everyday work activities to be more productive, efficient, collaborative and creative.

Essentially, corporate-mindfulness training is about developing the mental calm and clarity that enables us to do the right things rather than just doing things. It is about having the mental space to see clearly what is most important in this moment, even in the middle of busy daily work-life.

In the words of former Carlsberg CIO Kenneth Egelund Schmidt, a mindful organisation is “an organisation where people do the right things. Not just things. It is an organisation where people have the mental competence to think clearly, make the right decisions and act accordingly.”

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Taking multi-tasking to task


While you are reading this, you are likely to get distracted by an incoming email, a colleague who needs a word with you, or a phone that is ringing. And according to research, chances are high that your attention will follow the distraction, and you will find yourself caught up in something else before finishing this article.

If this scenario rings a bell, you are part of a modern work-life that is characterised by distractibility, complexity, pressure and information overload, which results in decreased performance, wellbeing and productivity.

No matter where I travel in the world, leaders and employees in organisations report that their attention is under constant crossfire. Emails, phone calls, meetings, text messages and colleagues are constantly requiring their focus.

Leading to less productive workers

Neurologically, this situation is interesting. The brain’s reaction to multiple tasks at the same time is to try to solve them all at once. It starts to multi-task. But does multi-tasking really make us more efficient and effective? Is this really the best way to respond to the demands of a fast-paced, high-stress work environment?

Numerous research studies conclude that multi-tasking makes us less productive and more susceptible to errors and increased stress. In 2009 Eyal Ophir at Stanford University conducted one of the most conclusive studies, finding that multi-tasking leads to more mistakes and requires longer time to perform a task.

In the 2011 McKinsey Quarterly, an article titled ‘Recovering from Information Overload’ concluded that: “Multi-tasking is a terrible coping mechanism. A body of scientific evidence demonstrates conclusively that multi-tasking makes humans less productive, less creative, and less able to make good decisions. If we want to be effective, we need to stop.”

Strategic HR tool

Some companies have taken the approach to heart as a strategic HR tool to enhance wellbeing, performance and productivity, and researchers have studied the results. Among others, Professor Jochen Reb from Singapore Management University found that a corporate-mindfulness implementation leads to an increase in job performance, job satisfaction, work-life balance, organisational citizenship behaviour and the ability to be focused. He has also found a significant decrease in emotional exhaustion, stress and turnover intention.

Technically, mindfulness is about taking control of our thoughts and being more present with what we are doing. It entails managing our mind rather than letting our mind manage us. The mind is like a muscle; it can be strengthened and toned and make us more present. And it can be trained to more effectively engage in everyday work activities to be more productive, efficient, collaborative and creative.

Essentially, corporate-mindfulness training is about developing the mental calm and clarity that enables us to do the right things rather than just doing things. It is about having the mental space to see clearly what is most important in this moment, even in the middle of busy daily work-life.

In the words of former Carlsberg CIO Kenneth Egelund Schmidt, a mindful organisation is “an organisation where people do the right things. Not just things. It is an organisation where people have the mental competence to think clearly, make the right decisions and act accordingly.”

Leave a reply

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More on HRM