Saturday, June 13, 2015

Focus Pocus

A habit that we humans seem to have developed over the past 10 years or so concerns an obsession with what is erroneously called multitasking.  According to folklore women can mutitask and men can’t and if you’re not multitasking then you’re not productive. It seems that an essential life skill is being able to text, tweet or share on Google +, while romancing the love of your life across the dinner table. We seem more intent on recording an event rather than actually living it. It may well be that this is what sees the end of our species: we’ll just fail to reproduce.

The research on this phenomenon, multitasking not love making, is not as supportive of our beliefs as we might like to think. We don’t actually multitask. What we do is engage in several tasks serially, spending perhaps only nanoseconds on one before switching to the next, and then back again. This toing and froing, as you might guess, is hard work on the brain and releases chemicals responsible for the fight and flight response, and that creates what we all know as stress.  Even a mild level of stress over a prolonged period of time is bad for our health. The adrenaline released increases our heart rate and blood pressure, puts stress on many of our other organs and makes us tense, as if we were expecting something bad to happen. Sapping our energy makes our brain less able to work at an optimum level causing us to make mistakes and problem solve poorly. A substance called cortisol is released when we experience stress and this suppresses our immune system and makes us more susceptible to all manner of illnesses, including cancer. From a work and life perspective attempting to multitask is not very productive.

One of the things that has come out of brain research recently is that prolonged focus on one task is much less stressful and is more likely to lead to greater productivity and quality in all that we do. And I’m talking about not just quality at work but quality in our relationships. I’ve spoken with many people over the years and have not met many that, should they die prematurely, would miss work. Nearly everyone I meet values their relationships above all else and family comes top of the list pretty well all of the time.

This is difficult to reconcile with the way we are treating ourselves with this fast-paced, highly distractible, instantly connected, Facebook selfie-posting world in which we find ourselves. Driven as this phenomenon is by narcissism and the inability to delay gratification, I get the feeling that we are oblivious to the damage we are doing to ourselves and our species.

From a leadership perspective, the question is how we construct work to change this multitasking habit. It could have a threefold effect. It would increase the quality and productivity in the workplace in the first instance. Secondly, it would reduce stress in employees: a worthy achievement in itself. And thirdly, perhaps it would contribute to changing the more general tendency.