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Resilience at work: get multitasking under control

Published 10th May 2017 by Investors in People
Female business leader multitasking

Multitasking is a total myth. We can’t do multiple things simultaneously. We just switch between them quickly. And this creates a “switching cost,” which is detrimental to cognition and productivity and leads to exhaustion.

For individuals, the costs are significant: a slippery slope of effectiveness and, if we continue to multitask, a feeling of losing control and - finally - the horrible state of mental ‘frazzledness’ where we don’t know what to do or what to think any more.

For organisations, the costs are magnified, because the negative effects on the individual are multiplied across all employees, and because multitasking takes up so much mental energy, it can be hard to have enough left for activities like collaboration, which really add business value.

Here are four ways organisations can take action on multitasking:

Offer time management training

Crucially, this mustn’t be about saving time - it needs to be about using time more effectively by working with the brain rather than against it.

Helping people understand the idea of time chunking (through ideas like the Pomodoro technique) can help them develop the tools necessary to avoid sleepwalking into daily multitasking.

The Pomodoro time management technique is used to ‘chunk’ time into separate timed blocks each day, each focused on a discrete task. The block length can be tailored to the task at hand. In between every block, you take a short break to rest the mind, along with longer breaks every three to four blocks.

Help people stay on top of technology

It’s so easy to switch between tabs on your browser, or keep flicking your eyes to see if any new emails have come in, or check your smartphone with one hand still on your mouse, that you’re never really concentrating on the task at hand, and the mental fatigue continues to build.

Designing a company policy around email, such as checking it three times a day (or on the hour if the former seems like too big a step) can help empower people to wean themselves off constant email multitasking, a significant contributor to stress.

Design the office consciously

Dr Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures at BT, says employees need to do four things in offices: communicate, collaborate, concentrate and contemplate.

Unfortunately, offices often lean towards collaboration and communication, both of which encourage “passive multitasking,” when we can’t tune out telephone conversations or when our colleagues need us suddenly when we’re deep in concentration.

Offices need to be set into zones for each of the four Cs, and employees need to be encouraged to choose the one that’s most appropriate for each of the tasks they need to do in their jobs, rather than migrating to the same fixed position every day.

Encourage the correct use of flexible working

Many employees still feel like flexible working is to be used when they need to use work time for personal commitments. But flexible working is a great way to design work to minimise the potential for multitasking.

For example, if your day is heavily leaning towards rote, admin tasks, you may thrive in the office, where the energy you get from being there is more important than the slight mental cost of being distracted when performing your admin tasks.

On the other hand, if you are working on a very important report where the narrative flow is critical and you don’t know the subject matter well, the costs of getting distracted - when it may have taken you 20 minutes just to load the existing narrative into your head - could be catastrophic, and lead to a worsening mental state that makes it increasingly harder to make progress.

Employers need to make sure they design flexible working policies to empower employees to choose the correct work environment, which may change every day.