The pace of today’s life often means we have to multitask, but many studies show that this is not always desirable. Rock’s book “Your Brain at Work” summarises the findings of many studies over the years, which shows that if accuracy in any task is important, then your attention should not be divided. The phenomenon known as ”dual task interference” explains why cognitive ability plummets when tackling more than one task at a time – regardless of what the individual tasks are. There is also no time-saving on each task because of this, so performance quality AND speed are diminished. So if you really must multitask, you may have to be satisfied with inferior performance on each task.
In 1998, a Microsoft VP coined the term “continuous partial attention” – this means keeping a top-level item in focus, and constantly scanning the periphery in case something more important pops up.This results in constant and intense mental exhaustion.
Physiologically, this means a constant start of alertness, a constant flight-or-fight state, with outpouring of stress hormones. Long-term, this sustained output of adrenergic hormones and cortisol has health implications, linked significantly to cardiovascular and stress disorders so commonly seen today.
In more practical terms, this can lead to mistake in the workplace – depending on the work you do, this can have devastating effects. The stress level of flight controllers is well known: their multitasking level is of necessity high, and the any mistake here can be disastrous. On a more everyday level is something like using a cell phone while driving. If you are texting, you are taking your eyes off the road and one hand off the wheel. Even handling a call on a hands-free device diverts your mental focus and significantly increases your chance of a road accident.
Most of us have to multitask to some extent. But be aware of the possible consequences and put safeguards in place e.g. pull off the road to make or answer a phone call, try to handle fewer simultaneous tasks. For more on this interesting topic look for “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long” Author: David Rock Publisher: HarperBusiness Copyright 2009 by David Rock