We live and work in a state of perpetual distraction. Expected to be capable of juggling several tasks at once, the ability to multitask has become a much praised and sought after skill.
And, now, science has proven women to be better at multitasking. Is this cause for celebration? Don’t bet on it.
In recent years, multitasking as an effective working practice has come into question. The reason for this? Attention residue; the amount of time it takes for our brains to switch from one task to another. In this study, Sophie Leroy – a business professor at the University of Minnesota – found that it’s difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and that their subsequent task performance suffers greatly.
In other words, the more we attempt to multitask, the more our effectiveness diminishes.
As we rise through the ranks at work, we are expected to work on more projects, manage more people and take on more tasks; the number of balls we must juggle increases exponentially with seniority.
So, in some ways, it’s fair to say that the fact we are better at multitasking works in our favour. In the environment in which we are expected to thrive, multitasking has become a necessity. And, therefore, our ability to work in this fashion helps us to win.
But there is a strong argument to suggest that this is a self-defeating strategy. Cal Newport – author of ‘Deep Work’ – explains that the rise of digital technology is transforming business, and not in a way that is beneficial for the typical worker. “As intelligent machines improve, and the gap between machine and human abilities shrink, employers are becoming increasingly likely to hire ‘new machines’ instead of ‘new people’.”
By investing in, and perpetuating the value of, our superior ability to multitask, we are, in fact, putting ourselves at greater risk of workplace redundancy.
Those of us who can foster the ability to quickly master complex things and produce quality work at great speed – thereby differentiating ourselves from the machine – will win out in the future economy. These skills can be cultivated by deep work – by focusing on a single task – which, Newport explains, is our salvation in the face automaton threat.
Additionally, deep work makes us much happier than shallow work. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains in his work on ‘Flow’, we find the most enjoyment at the point in which our we are challenged and can employ a high level of skill.
The working world is not designed to facilitate deep work. In order to create an environment where we can focus our attention free from distractions, we must get creative. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- Take a designated email break. For a couple of hours a day, switch on your out-of-office on your email system and close all applications.
- Use your meeting rooms. If you really want to get away from potential distractions, you must remove yourself from them entirely. Check for last minute empty meeting rooms and make the most of the peace.
- Employ a do-not-disturb policy. If you work in an open plan office, disruptions can become almost constant. Create a visual clue such as a green hat to let your colleagues know you are in ‘do not disturb’ mode. It’s worth explaining your new policy before you start to use it!
Multitasking can only get you so far, and we must question the value of this skill in the longer term. We’re much better off honing our ability to work deeply on a single task. To stay ahead of the machine, we must be the best at the one thing they cannot be – human.
About the author
Kate Jones writes graduate careers advice for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency specialising in matching career starters with graduate jobs. For everything from marketing internships to graduate jobs Manchester, click here.