Most leaders face the challenge to get more done with less time. Our so called time-saving technologies like smart phones, texting and faster Internet have actually done the opposite. They have created more work for us because they often make us accessible 24/7. This availability and rapid speed of communication has created the expectation from others that we should get more things done, and get them done faster. This reality tempts us to think that multitasking can actually save us time to meet the demands of life and leadership. However, multitasking as a way to increase productivity is a myth. Neuroscientists are now learning that multitasking negatively affects leadership in several ways.
Wise leaders understand that a key to productivity lies in their ability to focus their attention on what’s most important at the moment. And as neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, “Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system” (The Organized Mind, p. 16).
Before I give the seven ways multitasking dumbs down your leadership, a quick explanation of multitasking will help.
When I say multitasking, I don’t mean that we can’t do two things at once. We can drive and talk to our spouse at the same time. We can jog and listen to a podcast on our iPods at the same time. And we can wash dishes and talk to our kids at the same time. We can multitask when one of the tasks is embedded in the habit center of our brain (the basal ganglia), like driving. We drive without thinking about driving.
But multitasking that I’m writing about is attempting to do two things simultaneously that require the focused attention of the executive center of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex), like listening to a podcast and answering email at the same time.
With that concept in mind, here are seven ways multitasking will dumb down your leadership. Daniel Levitin expands on these concepts in his book. I highly recommend it.
- Reduced efficiency: Multitasking is not really multitasking. It’s simply switching rapidly from one task to the other, and that switching carries a cost. It’s called task switching cost. We actually are less efficient with our time when we try to simultaneously do two attentional tasks versus doing them consecutively.
- Foggy thinking: Multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol. When this happens we get anxious, our brains get overstimulated, and our thinking gets scrambled. This results in foggy thinking.
- Dopamine addiction: Multitasking can cause the feel good, reward neurotransmitter dopamine to increase by rewarding our task switching. The brain loves novelty, and when we switch tasks and find something novel in that switch, we get a tiny feel good boost. An example is that while you’re preparing a sermon or talk, you tell yourself, “I’ll just quickly check Facebook to see if I see something interesting.” If you do see something interesting it reinforces this pattern of distraction because it feels good. And then when you get back to your sermon prep, you again experience the cost of that task switch. It’s the, “Hmmm, now where was I?” As Dr. Levitin writes, “Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused attention, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugarcoated tasks” (p. 97).
- Reduced problem solving ability: Multitasking can actually reduce your problem solving performance by the equivalent of 10 IQ points. People who regularly multitask have poorer short term memories, which diminishes problem solving ability.
- Important information goes to the wrong part of your brain: One neuroscientist studied students who tried to do homework while watching TV. He found that information from their schoolwork did not go into the part of the brain responsible for memory (the hippocampus) where it should have.
- Depletion of brain nutrients: The brain gets its fuel from two sources: sugars (glucose) and oxygen. When we multitask, we actually burn up the brain’s fuel, which leaves less fuel for the more important mental tasks required of leaders. Yet when we stay focused on an important task, we actually reduce the brain’s need for glucose.
- Impaired decision making: When we constantly switch tasks, we’re faced with more and more decisions we must make. Do I answer this email now? Should I file it somewhere for later? Do I answer that text message now or later? As a result we lose impulse control because our brains tire from constant decision making. As a result we lack sufficient mental energy to wisely make decisions for more important issues.
So you can see that multitasking does not really save us time or help us become better leaders or pastors. The next time you catch yourself tempted to multitask, reread this post. It just might help you become a better leader that day.
How have you seen multitasking affect your leadership?