Unproductive multi tasking

Reader’s digest April month issue made a cover story on why multi tasking is inefficient and risky. I liked the way they presented their views, one example is to write A to Z and 1 to 26 in a paper; alphabets all at one time and numerals the second time. I clocked 20 seconds to do both tasks one by one. Next was to write A and then 1, B and then 2 and go on. This took me more than 30 seconds and I was not able to write as neat as I wrote in the previous attempt. This shows two simple tasks are inefficient when we switch contexts.

They then gave some examples people trying to multi-task and getting into car accidents or falling off the stairs etc (Mostly cell phone distractions). I have observed people who multi-task a lot to be more absent minded. My inclination is also to concentrate on one task at a time and for years I have been reading emails at the start of the day, lunch and end of day & switch off instant messengers at work. I like to compare working on a task to falling asleep, on an average it takes about an undisturbed 13 minutes for an individual to fall asleep; any disturbance before that is going to delay the onset of sleep. I can assume that a task that requires concentration at work will also need that undisturbed time (7 to 13 minutes) to settle into the mode and get going where the instincts take over the conscience (That is the point where I have been the most efficient).

Sadly the work places now are getting livelier and noisier, I mean it literally. Inviduals have begun to dive into multiple streams of work and often have to switch contexts. This leads to inefficiency and puts some individuals into a vicious cycle of coffee, long hours and lack of sleep until they go on vacations. If the environment is also micro management friendly then that adds more fuel to the vicious cycle of inefficiencies.

In my workplace I have observed people concentrate the most when they play a team game like AOE, where the only conversations are brief messages and status exchanges as the goal is to keep moving until you win. The work place core hours should be inclined that way to cut out not only literal noise but also disturbances which will make us switch contexts too often. Some rigidity in the schedule is required as it helps to get people into a rhythm, the schedule should also keep in mind the team’s composition to accommodate different individuals as they peak at different times during the day. Try getting your team and members work on a mutually agreed schedule of no meeting times and feel the difference it makes to every individual.

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