Multi-tasking at Work: Efficiency or Detriment? By Guest Blogger Kimberly Weichel

I used to pride myself on being an efficient multi-tasker. I occasionally bragged to my family that I could cook, speak on the phone, and listen to the radio at one time.  At work, I’ve tried to speak on the phone while I straighten my desk.

I used to think I was being clever in getting things done quickly.  But at what cost?

One of the most obvious costs of multi-tasking is the toll it takes on relationships.  In earlier conversations, people might say after speaking for a while, “What do you think?”  Because I couldn’t really pay attention while trying to do something else, I would blush and not know what to say, other than sheepishly ask, “Would you mind repeating it?”

What happened to attentiveness as a basic component of caring?

Like most people with a few decades of life experience, I was brought up to politely pay attention, while inattentiveness or interruptions were considered to be rude.  Now, inattentiveness and interruptions have become common.

I often find myself irritated when I attend events and someone’s cell phone rings, they answer it and start talking in the middle of a conference, movie or program! As both a speaker and attendee of various conferences, I find it disturbing to look around the room and see at least half the heads looking down at their Blackberry.

Can’t people pay attention? Why did we come to an event if we don’t want to listen?  Sure, there are RARE occasions when we are expecting an urgent call, but not all of our non-urgent calls seem to take priority over where we are and who we are with.

Scientific Studies Reveal Some Dangers of Multi-tasking

We all know the dangers of texting and driving, which fortunately has now been banned in all states. Yet many states allow people to talk on the cell phone and drive, despite plenty of evidence that it can lead to accidents, even fatalities.

And how often do we make costly mistakes at work when we try to do too many things at once?  How much longer do conversations take because we don’t pay attention?

Brain Research Shows Multi-tasking Really Doesn’t Work

“For each aspect of human performance — perceiving, thinking and acting — people have specific mental resources whose effective use requires supervision through executive mental control,” says Dr. David Meyer in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. It’s as if our mental CEO is trying to process and establish priorities among multiple tasks so it can allocate mental resources to them.

Multi-taskers diminish their ability to focus (and thereby be effective) because they tend to retain distracting information in their short-term memory.  “You’re being flooded with too much information and you can’t selectively filter out quickly which is important and which is not important,” says Meyer. “It only takes a fraction of a second for you to take your eyes off the road and miss the guy making a right-hand turn into your lane.”

Dr. Meyer and others found that people actually lose time by switching repeatedly between two tasks of varying complexity and familiarity. They have shorter attention spans and increased difficulty being present. When things seem not to move fast enough, they try to quickly fill it with something that seems to move faster.

Multi-tasking really inhibits effective human relationships. Don’t we notice when others aren’t paying attention to us?  Aside from whatever feelings we might have about another’s lack of respect, doesn’t the lack of focus and attention make it harder to transact any business right the first time?

For spiritual growth and human relations, we need to focus on one task at a time.

That’s the only way we can be more centered and present. Yes, I can do things like straighten the desk while waiting on a telephone hold, but a conversation or other task requires my full attention.

Spiritual practices help to center me in a fast paced world.  I especially need moments of silence, time for reflection, and time to dream.  The more of this type of practice I do, the more efficient I become.

Next time you are tempted to try 3 things at once, think again. And be sure you savor time for presence and silence.
In peace,

Kimberly Weichel

Kimberly Weichel is a social pioneer, educator, author and specialist in global communications, leadership and peacebuilding. She is co-author of “Healing the Heart of the World” and director of the Institute for Peacebuilding.