In many companies, people who conspicuously and consistently multitask are often considered to be among the hardest workers. It may very well be true that they work hard, but it’s only because the constant multitasking reduces productivity and innovation—and not only their own, but for everybody on the team.
When people multitask during meetings—for example, by checking email—they miss vital details of the discussion. From then either the team wastes time bringing the multitasker back up to speed, or the multitasker misses the details of the ongoing discussion and operates without the benefit of the team’s ideas. Either way, it’s a waste, and there’s research to back it up.
Sorting the Relevant from the Irrelevant
In a study conducted at Stanford University, multitaskers were shown to have a hard time sorting relevant information from irrelevant details. Have you ever been in a meeting with someone who can’t help but multitask the entire time? The whole room tunes out. What a waste!
Even worse, the research has shown that this problem persists even when the multitaskers are no longer multitasking. Their brains become less effective and less efficient. It could be that the only cure for this condition is a permanent end to multitasking. But what if multitasking, in your mind, is the only way to stay productive?
Multitasking can Reduce Productivity
When people multitask, most often they are engaged in rapid task switching rather than true multi-tasking. Research shows that multitaskers can be up to 40 percent less productive, and it can take as long as 25 minutes to resume a task after an interruption. This makes it harder to juggle multiple tasks because the brain has limitations that we might not immediately recognize.
Multitasking can Adversely Affect Creativity
Ideas are born from activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, however, this part of your brain can really only focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking puts an unnecessary burden on your prefrontal cortex and slows down your thinking capabilities.
A business team cannot effectively ideate if team members are multitasking as the prefrontal cortex requires “quiet time” to come up with new and innovative ideas. If the brain is not allowed this time to focus, creativity and subsequently innovation will suffer.
Eliminate Multitasking and Improve Innovation
Most multitaskers will resist the idea that their habit is adversely affecting their performance. You may need to take steps to help them break the habit. Here are a few ideas.
Declare an email break: Some business executives have set “no email days” and enjoyed large productivity gains as a result. Email can take up to 28 percent of the day, and it causes stress for workers. Setting limits on email will instantly improve productivity and reduce stress—leading to more creativity.
Schedule quiet time: Your brain isn’t designed to do two things at once and can’t come up with innovative ideas if it’s stressed and overworked. Give it the time and space to create the innovative solutions you seek.
Set priorities: Research is clear that focusing on multiple tasks at the same time reduces the effectiveness of the effort. Most high achievers focus on a single task for extended periods of time before moving on to other tasks, but people who are not clear on their priorities may not be able to do this without feeling stressed. Help them out by ensuring that priorities are clear.
Establish reasonable deadlines and balanced workloads: If you continually ask for the impossible from your employees, they will strive to achieve it by multitasking or turning in sub-par results. Unless this sort of approach is built into your plan, be reasonable when you ask employees to complete these tasks by a certain date, and listen to any concerns they raise about deadlines. Also, be sure that you distribute tasks equitably among team members.
Encourage mindfulness: Employees will do better and be more creative when they focus on the task at hand. If possible, discourage multitasking, which is often seen as the opposite of mindfulness. You don’t need to set a daily meditation time—although it doesn’t hurt to have everybody focused at the same time to minimize disturbances. Just make sure the team knows you prize attention and thoughtfulness over a mindless frenzy of multitasking.
Innovation Requires Focused Thought
The research shows that both creativity and innovation require focused thought. Help employees to understand this and set a good example by eliminating multitasking from your own life. You may be amazed at the increased productivity, enhanced creativity and reduced stress that eliminating this time-wasting, innovation-draining technique will yield.
There is plenty of innovating going on within QAD’s walls. In fact, much of the innovative research and development that goes on directly involves our customers. As an example, we are constantly engaging and collaborating with our customers through focused thought and experimentation in the QAD Labs, which by design allows for rapid application, evaluation and strategy-building for the purpose of driving innovation. Innovation is not born from the ideas of one team in one office. For us, it is vital that we involve those of an entire community of forward-thinking manufacturers to innovate for the future.
How does your company foster innovation? What are you doing to help promote the creation of new ideas in your industry? Let us know in the comments below.