Have you ever had one of those days when you return home and friends or loved ones ask the polite question "how was your day?" You immediately retort "busy, yeah – really busy!", as this has now become your standard response.
The follow-up question, though, is the killer punch. "So, what exactly did you do?" You stop, reflect and then stare back blankly, thinking to yourself "well, what I really did was bounce from one document to the next; check emails every time the pop-up alert came on; jumped from a Powerpoint presentation, to an Excel spreadsheet, to Facebook and then shared files on Flickr, to checking Twitter, sending text messages and handling walk-ins all at the same time; taking regular phone calls plus pretending to check in for a couple of meetings ..."
If you find your attention is constantly divided, if you jump from one unfinished task to the next, if every day feels like you've been busy but not really productive - then you probably suffer from Continuous Partial Attention (CPA), a term coined by former Microsoft and Apple executive Linda Stone.
She describes how "CPA is motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognised, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort not to miss anything. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis".
Stone believes this constant connection "contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we're inaccessible. The latest, greatest powerful technologies have contributed to our feeling increasingly powerless".
The multi-tasking myth
Right now a considerable amount of research is taking place into ways of focusing the attention of employees in our wired-up, technology-driven workplaces. A number of studies suggest "multi-tasking" is a misnomer, even a myth, and the brain doesn't simultaneously process work, but rapidly switches between various work activities. Only tasks that are highly practiced or automatic (like talking on the phone or driving a car) can be performed simultaneously with other actions. Switching back and forth is considered necessary for anything that requires action planning.
The research shows that if employees try to engage in multiple activities at once, they're actually performing more slowly and less accurately, resulting in lower levels of productivity.
People may think otherwise, but it's a myth that you will ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain for processing information - a key ingredient of knowledge work.
A study at Kings Psychiatry College in London, commissioned by Hewlett Packard, found excessive use of technology reduced workers' intelligence and short-term memory. Employees distracted by email, text messages, phone calls and constant distractions (think about your average day right now!) saw a 10-point fall in their IQ when it was tested after they were multi-tasking, jumping between five and six different projects.
The researchers then examined the IQ drop of a test group after they smoked marijuana. The IQ of the group who smoked a joint averaged a five-point fall. So the tongue-in-cheek synopsis of this study was "it is better to smoke marijuana than it is to multi-task for your short-term IQ!"
The University of London psychologist who carried out the study, Dr Glenn Wilson, commented that "unchecked infomania reduces workers' mental sharpness. Multi-tasking can be incredibly stressful on the brain, it impairs short-term memory and concentration. Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night's sleep".
The IQ loss also turns out to be temporary. Remove multi-tasking from the picture, and test scores jump back to normal.
The case for doing one thing at a time
There is a way out of multi-tasking mania, and this will require a totally different mindset for some people.
This is not a new term, but for many people it is a new skill. Chunking involves focusing on completing one task at a time, or working on similar tasks together.
(Example: Writing all your proposals together, locking out two hours to complete a project report, or blocking all your inner-city meetings back-to-back on a Wednesday afternoon. Put a do-not-disturb sign on your office door or workstation if you have to).
2. Forced isolation
Try working without any distraction for a few hours. Turn off your mobile or put it in silent mode, get rid of the email pop-up alert and be disciplined, avoiding continually checking emails. If possible, work in a closed space or quiet room to avoid walk-ins and distractions. It helps to tell colleagues that you're working on finishing a few tasks, so please avoid interrupting unless it's urgent. You'll be amazed how much more work you'll accomplish.
3. Tech-free meetings
Enforce rules in meetings, including turning off mobile phones and only using tablets if they have information specific to the meeting. This will keep meetings much shorter and to the point. Where possible, compress meetings from the mandatory 60 minutes down to 45 minutes or less.
4. Think traffic lights
Red (off), Orange (in between) and Green (all systems go). Build in regular periods where you turn technology off and control the distractions. There will be times when the light will be orange and you will want to be in a state of CPA. At the start of the working day it's fine to spend 30 minutes checking emails, surfing the web, talking to colleagues and getting organised for the day. But when you really need to go, try and minimise distractions and do one thing properly. Finish the task, then move onto the next.
How have you managed to tame the multi-tasking beast?