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Multi-tasking - business relevance

04 February 2015

many armed woman

“The average woman is better able to organise her time and switch between tasks than the average man.” True or false?

It’s actually true, but in the end, is it worthwhile?

The research filtering out into the media disputes the value of multi-tasking, full stop. Multi-tasking, it’s now believed, affects productivity negatively in the long run, no matter who you are. The modern world’s inherent belief and reliance on each of us being able to do a whole lot of things at once – and efficiently – is misplaced. Multi-tasking actually leaves us less able to cope, learn, and do. Multi-tasking works against efficiency.

Is this another attack by a predominantly male research community on women in the workplace, or something we need to heed if we are to develop efficiency at work?

At Ruby we’re going with the latter because conspiracy theories rarely benefit anyone.

Women are better at rapid switching work environments – the ones in which we answer emails, the phone, work on assignments and attend meetings - but if that norm alienates half the workforce, then won’t productivity suffer?

Greater than this quandary - that men are no good at multi-tasking - is the fact that any output associated with the modern-day workplace, which by default means multi-tasking, will be less efficient and possibly inferior in quality.

Multi-tasking when it involves rote actions, things like putting away laundry and talking on the phone or walking and talking, and even driving and listening to the radio aren’t what we are talking about here. The problem comes when we have to make decisions that use analytic or critical thinking - brain power - and we’re hammering ourselves with tasks: attending a meeting with your laptop open and answering emails, for example, or flitting between emails, phone, web research, writing, and meetings.

According to Miller’s Law (which is based on a paper written in the 1950s by an American cognitive psychologist) the magic number of objects/things an average person can hold in their short term memory is seven, plus or minus two. Each of the tasks listed above involve more than seven discrete things within them. It goes without saying then that if you’re trying to combine what we could call multi-, multi-tasks the outcome is bound to be failure.

If the ‘things’ you are doing are so numerous they can’t be held in your short term memory then how are they going to reach your long term memory and if they haven’t ever got to your long term memory how are you going to recall them for use later?

Modern workplace behaviours could do with reassessment. As many of our colleagues point out, when attending a one-on-one meeting (or any meeting for that matter), where you are communicating with other people, is it even good manners to have your phone or tablet open to email, and be beavering away on it as you talk?

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