Monday, September 26, 2011

Multitasking - Friend or Foe?

Given the workplace of today, we are all guilty of trying to get too much done each day.  We over pack our schedules in an effort to 'keep up' and we use technology as a tool to help us keep track of if not complete, multiple tasks simultaneously.  Who hasn't been guilty of reading an email or text message from one person while speaking to another?  When accused of not listening or paying attention we confidently assure them we are, that we are simply multitasking and can pay equal attention to both activities simultaneously.

Our ability to multitask successfully is much lauded and sought after during recruitment.  However, as it turns out, there is a very narrow window of activities that allow us to truly multitask.  In fact, two key conditions must be met for us to multitask, to truly engage in two separate activities simultaneously...
  1. one of the activities must be so ingrained, so well learned, that it is now automatic and habitual.  This means that there is no conscious thought required for you to engage in the task (think walking or eating here)
  2. that the activities you are looking to engage in use completely different types of brain processing.  For example, you can read and listen to instrumental music because they involve different parts of the brain.  However, your comprehension and retention of information you're reading drops significantly if you read while listening to music with lyrics.  As soon as the lyrics are added you are asking the same part of the brain (language center) to attend to two different sources of information simultaneously... and it can't.
As soon as our multiple activities stimulate and require the same brain area or function, we are no longer Multitasking, but 'Serial' Tasking.  Our brain continually shifts from one task to the other, in very rapid succession.  As much as this might seem like a significant difference, research is now showing us that there is a high price to be paid in productivity for Serial Tasking. It seems that, despite how it feels, our brains are not able to shift smoothly and seamlessly from one task to another.  There is a lag time in which our brains detach from the current task and attach to the new task.  If we are constantly shifting from one to another, this can add a significant amount of time (up to 40%) on completion time, versus single tasking.

  • in studies testing multitasking capabilities, those who rated themselves as chronic multitaskers actually made more mistakes, cold remember fewer items and took longer to complete single-focused tasks than those who rated themselves as infrequent multitaskers.
  • other studies have definitively shown that children perform worse on their homework if it done while watching TV (thank god my mother never saw this but then, my children didn't appreciate the fact I had!)
  • and again, research shows that employees are more productive when they don't check their email frequently
I know that when I have a new program that I am writing, I will pack up cases of my research notes, a million and one sticky notes, flipcharts and markers and head to the cottage for a couple of weeks.  Minimizing my distractions and immersing myself in the subject truly allows me to gain greater clarity, finish faster and develop a far superior product than had I stayed back at the office fielding calls and interruptions.

I know that this isn't an option available at all times though, so what are we to do when life seems to scream at us to multitask all of the time?

  1. recognise that life is rarely asking us to multitask.  Instead, it is simply coming at us with simultaneous demands.  Rarely do our task have to be accomplished simultaneously, they simply have to be done by the same time.  Staging our activities in a priority order truly helps us in single tasking more efficiently.  Maintaining our focus on one activity, for a set period of time, can help us accomplish it faster.  At the end of the day we just need our list completed.  How we have managed that is less important.
  2. although we can't pick up and head to the cottage to work every day, we can block out moments in our day that help us to really focus and concentrate on an important task.  Close the office door or move to a meeting room, shut off the phone, the blackberry, turn off the message received notification on your computer.  In order words... minimize all potential interruptions and distractions.
  3. consider making some changes on an ongoing basis that do the same.  Turn your desk so that you do not face directly out of the door.  This prevents you from seeing movement going past your door that draws the eye and breaks focus.  Turn off the message receipt sound to your email and only answer it at scheduled points during your day. (same with other devices!) 
  4. when focusing on a task schedule a set amount of time during your day for working on it.  Just the fact that you know you have 30 minutes set aside for a task allows you to feel comfortable spending the time needed on it, rather than feeling guilty about the time it takes.  This helps you to relax into the activity and not have part of your brain focused on how long it is taking and reminding you of everything else waiting for you. 
When we have so many things, and people, screaming for our attention throughout the day, we may find that the key lies not in learning to multitask better, but in simply learning to focus on one thing at a time better!  Breaking away from the myth of multitasking may prove to be the biggest productivity booster that you have implemented yet!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Picture your Performance

We experience thousands of influence attempts a day, whether via sound (conversations with friends, family, coworkers; advertisements on radio, TV, Internet; sirens as we're driving; etc) or through visual means (television and TV, billboards and posters, magazines, friends, family, coworkers, etc.).  Regardless of the source, we are bombarded with messages and attempts to move and sway us in one direction versus another.  Why can't we then jump on the influence bandwagon and work to influence ourselves in a desired direction?

It sounds like a logical idea and yet, few people deliberately and strategically structure their environment to influence their thinking and behaviour in a specific direction.  If we look at your work environment in particular (but know that the same would apply for any space that you occupy with any regularity), you likely would be interested in increasing your productivity.  Research shows that surrounding yourself with pictures and memorabilia of people you admire and respect has a positive influence on your productivity and performance. 

In basic terms, the brain doesn't know the difference between the picture and reality.  Therefore, looking at pictures that are motivating, that represent a specific and positive message, influences who you are and what you do.  You need to be very clear about who and what inspires you though.  Consider... what will ALWAYS drive and push you forward.

Just as we know that certain colours work to soothe and comfort, while others increase our feeling of stress and anxiety, so too do we now know that pictures can create certain responses in us as well.  Bear in mind too that these images are highly personal.  What works for the guy sitting next to you may be and feel totally irrelevant to you.  The more open and honest you are with recognising what people and things inspire you, motivate you, drive you, the greater the influence of those images.

One caveat though.  There should be NO family pictures in your work space.  Nope... none!  Pictures of your family - especially your children - drive different behaviours that are often at odds with those that enhance your performance.  I know that I will likely get push back from many who feel that they 'do it all for their kids'...  but research shows us that looking at pictures of our kids may lead us to temper our performance drive rather than rev it up. 

It's up to you to decide what you're trying to accomplish, whether on the job or life in general!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Joy of Learning

I am writing this blog post, early in the morning, with my iPad and I both huddled under the covers while my roommate sleeps on. I feel a little like a kid at camp must, who has been told that it's lights out and who, instead, huddles with friends under the blankets with a flashlight, telling ghost stories.

Why am I not taking advantage of the time away from the day-to-day household noise, enjoying the lovely hotel bed that I won't have to make, sleeping in for a change? Because I am away attending an amazing conference and I am too excited about what I am learning. I can't wait to get home and start applying it. I can't wait for the day to get started so I can get into the conference room and learn more. My mind seems overloaded with new thoughts, ideas and concepts. And miraculously opens up to new thoughts, making room in a space that had previously seemed full to bursting.

Although I do feel a sense of overwhelm and do experience questions in my mind concerning what I am going to do with all of this new information, I am far too excited and jazzed about everything to allow anything to break my buzz.

Here's my question to you. When was the last time you felt like this? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be a student and opened yourself to learning something new? And not just something new...something that got you excited, ideas that you could feel physically, with an almost butterflies in the stomach kind of wonder?

This is how we felt as children when we were learning. We experienced the wonder of new ideas. We let them sink in and connect with other things we had learned until we then asked questions to increase our understanding and strengthen those links. And not just one or two questions, we asked QUESTIONS! We weren't concerned with what other people thought about the quality of our questions, we were solely focused on our own understanding. We wanted to know, we wanted to understand and, perhaps most importantly, we wanted to learn more.

As I prepare to head out to experience my final day of this conference, I invite you all to crawl out from under your covers with me and open yourself to new ideas and thoughts today. Adopt the learning model and pose of a child. Look at the new idea with wonder, not skepticism; with joy, not reluctance; with excitement, not dread.

This is my new motto, and I invite you all to explore and perhaps even adopt THIS new idea... To learn as a child. You might just be surprised to rediscover the pure pleasure of learning.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Why Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize May Make You Miss It!

We are all taught that we not only need to have goals, but that we need to remain clearly focused on them. There is research that would indicate though that our ability to focus and concentrate intensely on a task may blind us to everything else going on around us, thus limiting the quality of our end result.  We have all experienced this phenomena in some respect...
  • When asked at work how many yellow Volkswagen beetles we passed on our way in, we reply none.  We assume that we didn't see any because there were none to see.  We're surprised driving home because we see seven. 

  • Police Officers take down the eye-witness accounts of an accident that occurred directly in front of three different witnesses, each of which report different facts.

  • We are talking to a colleague at work about a need we have for a special project we are struggling with when another colleague approaches and comments on the new haircut of the first.  We hadn't noticed until it was mentioned by the second person.

In a study of this phenomena, known as Attention Blindness, researchers showed an entire audience a video tape of six people passing a basketball.  The audience was tasked with counting the number of passes that occur between the three people wearing white t-shirts, not black.  The intent of course is to get the audience focused on the task of counting.  Most people in the audience count correctly and are pleased with having done so.  Imagine their surprise when asked if they had noticed the gorilla walk onto the screen, walk amongst the tossers, and walk off.  Few see it until the replay when, to their astonishment, there is a large gorilla clearly walking amongst the group of six.  This is the result of attention blindness. 

Typically, those amongst the audience that notice the gorilla were those that did not get the number of passes correct.  They either hadn't bothered to try, got distracted by some other stimuli (cell phone vibrated, fly landed on their nose... something!) and then looked back to the screen.  Because they weren't focused on a task directly, they were more open to other input. 

Each of us sees the world from a different perspective.  Our perspective can leave us blind to the perspectives and insights that others may have.  It is impossible for us to see everything because every time we are looking, we are programmed already to 'see' from and through the perspective of our wants, needs and goals.  Our focus has already been determined by our need. 

In business this may mean that we indirectly limit ourselves from being as creative, arriving at the best solution, or in fully seeing and anticipating potential barriers and issues.  However, by virtue of them 'seeing' differently than we do, others may be in a better position to point these blind spots out to us.  Our challenge of course, is to remain open to listening to their input.

What can we do?

First of all, acknowledge that more exists beyond what you can see.  Getting another pair of eyes to review your project, your solution, your direction may catch things that you overlooked.  Getting this insight before you have finalized your direction is definitely preferable to realizing, after implementation, that you overlooked something.  This may mean that you deliberately add people onto your team specifically for the different perspectives that they bring to the table.  If everyone sees and thinks the way you do then you are automatically limiting the result from the outset.  Embracing differences in perspectives is not always easy, but it almost always proves to have value.

Secondly, recognise the differences in people's perspectives and assign elements of a task according to the strength of that perspective.  Know that your people will see what they are instructed to see.  There may be value in not limiting the direction of their sight, by asking someone to be responsible for seeing what others are missing.  In other words... if you're responsible for doing the counting, assign someone else to watch out for the gorilla!

This is just as relevant for you to consider at a personal level.  Don't allow yourself to get derailed from your goals simply because you failed to notice an upcoming roadblock.  Take the time to periodically bounce your goals and chosen direction off of someone else, for their insights and perspectives.  They are likely going to see pending potholes and roadblocks that you have failed to, allowing you to plan another route to your success.