Multi-Tasking Facts

Multi-Tasking Facts

There have been many studies on the topic of multi-tasking.  Isn’t it amazing that this particular topic is the subject of many international studies and experiments?  Here are some of the more recent studies on the subject:

  1. The ScienceDaily (7/26/2006) reported that multi-tasking affects the brain’s learning systems.  People use different brain systems for different kinds of learning.  These systems are used to store and then recall something you've learned.  Declarative memory is used to recall facts such as your driver’s license number or a person’s name and calls upon the hippocampus.  Procedural memory is used to recall how to perform a skill such as riding a bike or playing golf and calls upon the striatum.  Tasks learned without distraction will use the hippocampus whereas tasks learned with distraction will use the striatum.  During multi-tasking (distraction) the striatum is primarily used which supports the study’s hypothesis that multi-tasking is changing the way people learn. How is this relevant?  Learning that occurs with distraction is less “flexible”.  It can only be recalled within that specific context.
  1. Dr. Jordan Grafman, a neuropsychologist at the National Institute of Health has been studying the effects of multi-tasking on the brain.  The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain used when multi-tasking.  It allows you to assess, prioritize and work tasks and then “bookmark” those tasks so that you know where you last left off on an unfinished task.  The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are also the parts of the brain that is most damaged (brain cells die) with prolonged stress.  The result is that people under stress will have more difficulty in multi-tasking, memory recall and the ability to learn or retain new facts.  Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell describes it as having a “severe case of modern life”.  In the business world, the result is a workplace that becomes toxic and staff focused exclusively on meeting their quotas but lacking innovation, creativity, flexibility and humor.
  1. According to the theory of constraints, multi-tasking is any time one individual has concurrent responsibilities, priorities and tasks assigned them.  In these situations, people try to prioritize their work and make a little progress on several things but never really finishing any one of them according to the project’s schedule.  There are several known impacts in this situation:
  1. Any time you stop and then start a task again, you will lose some time because you will have to recall where you last left off.  This “gear changing” loss typically equates to 10% added duration for each task and an average of 30% added duration to the project.
  2. Interruptions and changes in priorities based on what is currently “urgent” places undue stress on the team and the result is wasted motion or churn.  The team is in motion (churn) but not necessarily making progress (forward momentum).
  3. The design of the schedule network structure is created to meet often unrealistic deadlines.  The most common method is to create multiple parallel work efforts (paths) which increase communication and integration complexities.  This also increases the schedule risk and results in missed deadlines.
  1. Gloria Mark, an “interruption scientist” at the University of California has been studying the effect on a person’s performance when they are frequently diverted from one task to another.  The results are that those studied worked faster but produced less.  They also reported significantly higher stress levels and frustration.  According to Dr. Alan Keen of Australia’s Queensland University, multi-tasking is a significant reason for rage in society.  He may have a point.  Brain chemicals change under stress.  The stress hormone Cortisol is released which makes us more disposed to aggressive and impulsive behaviors.

Let's summarize what we've learned.  Multi-tasking increases stress levels.  Increased stress levels lead to multi-tasking but at the same time decreases my ability to multi-task.  A vicious unproductive cycle is created.   Multi-tasking has been “encouraged” within the workplace.  The perception may be increased productivity but the evidence does not support it. 

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