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Do You Multitask?

Does this ever happen to you? Do you feel overworked? Overwhelmed? Overtired? Most of us are busier than ever: We're doing our jobs--plus sometimes the jobs of one or two gone-but-not-replaced colleagues--and doing it all with less support.

"Do more with less" is the unforgiving mantra of business in any industry today. Make more decisions, launch more innovations--get more stuff done--with fewer people and less resources. Cell phones, laptops, PDAs, pagers all beeping, ringing, flashing making demands on our time and our attention.

It's reported by a study by the Families and Work Institute in New York of 1,003 employees that 45 percent of U.S. workers feel they are asked or expected to work on too many tasks at once. Is this true for you?

How do we do it? We become very good at multitasking. We do it everywhere--largely because of technology. We can check pagers and even answer cell phones on the golf course (or in my case, the tennis court!) Does this mean you have less time to do real work as more time is spent on task work-answering messages, shuffling papers? Do you manage to stay sane in the face of these crazy demands?

A growing body of scientific research shows that multitasking can actually make you less efficient. Trying to do two or three things at once or in quick succession can take longer overall than doing them one at a time, and may leave you with reduced brainpower to perform each task.

Research shows that multitasking increases stress, diminishes perceived control, and may cause physical discomfort such as stomach aches or headaches not to mention shoddy work, mismanaged time, rote solutions, and forgetfulness. Have you ever noticed that as you are working on one task, thoughts about another creep into your consciousness? Taken further, car crashes, kitchen fires, forgotten children, near misses in the skies, and other dangers of inattention.

A study of 1,003 employees by the New York Families and Work Institute says that 45 percent of U.S. workers feel they are asked or expected to work on too many tasks at once. Is this true for you?

The Institute for the Future finds that employees of Fortune 1,000 companies send and receive 178 messages a day and are interrupted an average of at least three times an hour. Are heads shaking in agreement?

It doesn't mean we can't do several things at the same time, but we're kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without a cost. Our brains allow us to appear as though we can comfortably multitask. We do have an excellent filtering mechanism to switch our attention rapidly from one thought to the next.

At the same time, rather than lose unattended thoughts, this mechanism keeps them active in the recesses of the brain. However, the more we juggle, the less efficient we become at performing any one task. And the longer we go before returning to an interrupted task, the harder it is to remember just where we left off. Multitasking diminishes our productivity and makes us work harder just to feel like we are barely keeping up.

Recently, the public debate over multi-tasking focused largely on cell phones and driving. On July 1, 2004, New Jersey became the second state - behind New York - to ban drivers from using a cell phone without a headset. Washington, D.C., has adopted a similar ban.

No one solution works for everyone. Try them all, and then choose those that work best for you:

Better estimate the time it takes to complete a task. For instance, list the tasks you plan to complete during a four-hour period and write down how long you think each task will take. Then, time yourself. Find the percentage by which you underestimate, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

Write things down--offload what's on your mind onto paper. Keep a pad of paper and pen by your bedside and write those thoughts that either keep you up, or wake you up, in the middle of the night. I get my best ideas in the middle of the night and write them down so I can get back to sleep peacefully. The only caveat here is have big paper. I tend to write my thoughts one atop the other in the dark!

Allow yourself to complete a task-the most productive way to work. Remove distractions: close your door (if you have one), do not check your e-mail, and turn off the ringer on your phone, cell phone, pager, and fax.

Schedule down time for yourself. Do something different--refresh your system so you return to work with a clean perspective, and the ability to work more effectively.

Do these sound familiar? Many are techniques for de-stressing and rightly so. Multitasking is stressful. Technology can multitask forever. Humans cannot.

I find the following fascinating-since at this moment while I'm creating this article I'm interrupted by phone calls, e-mails, staff, and my mind reminding me what is left in my Daytimer to be done today!

How do we do it? Research shows that the ability to multi-task stems from a spot right behind the forehead. That's the anterior part of the region neuroscientists call the "executive" part of the brain--the prefrontal cortex. When we assess tasks, prioritize them, and assign mental resources, these frontal lobes are doing most of the work.

This same region of the brain is where we pull off another uniquely human trick that is key to multi-tasking-"marking" the spot at which a task has been interrupted, so we can return to it later. However, the prefrontal cortex is the most damaged as a result of prolonged stress-- particularly the kind of stress that makes a person feel out-of-control and helpless.

The kind of stress, for example, that you might feel when overwhelmed by the demands of multi-tasking. Such stress also will cause the death of brain cells in another region-the hippocampus, which is critical to the formation of new memories. Damage there can hobble a person's ability to learn and retain new facts and skills.

When a person multi-tasks well-without errors or disastrous results-it is usually because one or more of the tasks engaged in has become automatic. For example, I can eat lunch and read the newspaper at the same time, because eating really involves no conscious thought. I'm sure you can think of instances where you've had similar experiences.I hope you are not multitasking as you read this!

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References: Healy, M. We're All Multitasking. LA Times, July 19, 2004, pg. F 1. Weil, M. & Rosen, L.D. TechnoStress. NJ: John Wiley, 1997.

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