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What is ‘executive control’, and how is it relevant to multitasking?

Executive control: although it sounds like what executives exercise within their working day, it’s a term that’s associated with mental agility, specifically the act of switching quickly between two or more tasks.

Rubinstein, Meyer and Evans conducted research into what could be described as ‘air traffic control’ for our thoughts, to deem whether multitasking saved time. They looked at which was better – to be able to continually switch between tasks, or methodically concentrating on just one at a time.

The results were interesting: due to ‘goal shifting’ and ‘rule activation’ thought processes, time was lost when switching occurred. Interestingly, even more time was lost when the tasks in question were very different, e.g. switching from a creative task to a more mathematically-based project. These ‘time deficits’ over a longer period lost significantly more time than multitasking could expect to gain. ID-100261047A recent study by Hewlett Packard even went as far to suggest that frequent switching between tasks temporarily reduces IQ!

So, is multitasking wrong?

The issue of multitasking is not confined to executives – ask any chef responsible for more than a dozen orders or bar staff/waitresses at crowded events. Research suggests, however, that we’re not actually concentrating on more than one task simultaneously when multitasking. That we give nothing our full attention seems an often overlooked fact as we race to show we can get everything done in our fast-paced schedules.

The act of dividing attention is referred to as using our ‘executive system’. Neuroscientist Daniel Weissman says that despite less need for it today, it is one of the major attributes to our evolution as a species. Without it, we wouldn’t have ended up top dog in the food chain – we needed to carry out ‘normal life’ automatically whilst we worked out how to outwit our predators/larger prizes in our hunter-gatherer days.

It’s obvious that we can multi-task; how many of us surf the net and make notes whilst drinking coffee and eating lunch? Juggling more than one action becomes easier if it doesn’t need much engagement from our brain. The more we can apportion to unconscious thought, or our inner auto-pilot, the more space we have in our brain for further tasks.

But which tasks we choose to fill this space is obviously important. Driving from A to B is mostly done consciously, but every driver will recognise reaching somewhere in their car and having no recollection of the previous five miles they’ve driven to get there. Whilst driving can be done unconsciously, it’s obvious why it’s not a good idea to purposely zone out when driving, or to assume that our brains can cope with such as sending a text at the same time.

The performance level of each task we simultaneously undertake suffers, when compared to our full attention towards it individually. Half the attention also means half the commitment, creativity, energy and focus. Though multitasking sounds like we’re accomplishing more, we’re really not. That said, it’s an important element in our history as humans, and something that allows us to lump menial tasks together, where they don’t require much brain power – in this respect, multitasking does allow us to ‘get more done’. Imagine the time we’d lose if we had to concentrate only on eating, reading, watching TV or listening to the radio, if we weren’t capable of doing other things at the same time.

However, in terms of multitasking enabling us to ‘get more done’ in the office, it doesn’t pay. Multitasking, in the short term, allows us to cross off more of our to-do list, but if each item needs doing/absorbing again, it’s a false economy.

One solution seems obvious: to work only on one (challenging) task at a time. However, there are other things that can help if multitasking appears attractive or unavoidable. Avoid further distraction; work in isolation if necessary. If deadlines are bearing down, consider grouping similar tasks together, so that your brain has to do less ‘switching’. Learning to successfully delegate and prioritise are also valuable skills to harness in this respect.

What are your thoughts – do you believe multitasking is a myth, or do you think it has merit? I’d be interested to hear your views.

Angela Sabin offers executive coaching services to decision-makers, leaders/managers and HR professionals within large organisations. For further details, visit www.executive-life-coaching.co.uk or contact Angela on 01302 220021.

Thanks to iosphere at freedigitalphotos.net for use of the image.

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