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Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

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Constant interruptions may be killing your productivity and creativity

By Misty Lown

Here’s a confession: I’m writing this article for myself. With five kids, a dancewear store and studio, 700 students, and a new job as managing partner of five daycare centers, I have reached a whole new level of multitasking. My question is: at what point does multitasking become plain overload?

 For many of us, time management is the number-one challenge. I am constantly asking, “What is the highest, best use of my time in this moment?” This is a great question. Unfortunately, I don’t always come up with an answer because I’m too busy responding to other people’s questions on my email or cell phone.

 Like most people, I have a hard time focusing on one task when I know there is a message waiting to be answered. Thanks to the benefits of technology, these interruptions keep coming. Entire days are eaten up in busyness, yet nothing gets checked off the to-do list. Almost-finished projects beg for 30 minutes of undivided attention but never get it. Do we have too much on our plates? Is there a way to deal effectively with incessant interruptions? Is multitasking itself the problem?

Interruptions are the enemy
“Email is making you stupid,” shouted a recent headline in Entrepreneur magazine. According to this article, the brain actually shifts gears when interrupted. The author described the interruption like this: “So the gum-chewing part of the brain is now replying to the boss’ email.” Is that the part of your brain you want to use when you respond to a cranky parent or sensitive staff issue?    

From the boardroom to the classroom, Wall Street to Main Street, workers are feeling the effects of e-interruptions. According to the Information Overload Research Group (iorgforum.org), the growing assault of e-interruptions on our workday causes lower productivity, diminished comprehension, compromised concentration, and less innovation. For dance teachers, that means getting less done, making more mistakes, having to redo things, and running dry in the creativity department. Basically, it’s a recipe for burnout.

Divided attention equals inefficiency
Consider this: how much longer would it take you to get through ballet class if you alternated each barre exercise with choreography for the recital? Can you imagine jumping from pliés to working on formations, only to head back to the barre for a quick tendu before cleaning the turns section of the routine? Switching gears mentally isn’t much more efficient. In the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2001, researchers Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans found a hefty increase in the total time it took subjects to complete two problems when they switched back and forth mentally between the tasks, compared with subjects who focused on and completed one problem before turning to the other.

Entire days are eaten up in busyness, yet nothing gets checked off the to-do list. Almost-finished projects beg for 30 minutes of undivided attention but never get it.

“People in a work setting,” Meyer told CNN, “who are banging away on word processors at the same time they have to answer phones and talk to their co-workers or bosses—they’re doing switches all the time. Not being able to concentrate for, say, tens of minutes at a time, may mean it’s costing a company as much as 20 to 40 percent” in terms of potential efficiency lost, or the “time cost” of switching, as these researchers call it.

“In effect,” Meyer told CNN, “you’ve got writer’s block briefly as you go from one task to another. You’ve got to (a) want to switch tasks; you’ve got to (b) make the switch; and then you’ve got to (c) get warmed back up on what you’re doing.”

Reinforcing the point, French researchers Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron reported in April in the journal Science that humans are wired to do one—or a maximum of two—things at one time. Their research on the brain revealed that if one goal is being pursued, both frontal lobes work together. If two goals are being pursued, each lobe pursues its own goal. Add a third goal and—you guessed it—the first goal gets bumped. We may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but that’s about it.

 Not only can we not handle three things at once, we fall apart when we try to. As reported by the British Broadcasting Corp., University of London psychologist Glenn Wilson claims: “Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night’s sleep.”

The real issue
Teaching class or running a studio is tiring enough without the extra mental fatigue of multitasking. So why do we continue bouncing from task to tweet if we know it leads to this kind of stress? Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, claims multitasking is a symptom of “task creep,” or doing more to feel productive while actually accomplishing less. “Doing something unimportant well does not make it important,” Ferriss says, adding that efficiency is only useful if applied to the right things.

 What are the right things? For dance teachers and studio owners, time and attention need to go to the tasks that move the studio forward, like planning classes, rehearsals, and performances; communicating with teachers, parents, and students; and marketing, budgeting, and networking.

While most of us are handling all of these things, we’re not doing them one at a time. Phone calls, emails, queries from our kids, checking up on social sites, even hunger pangs—at the studio or working at home, the interruptions can be endless.

Resolving to change
With all this information in hand, I have made two resolutions: first, to cut multitasking out of my diet for a month; and second, to plan a technology-free vacation for next Christmas. I’m committed to change. Why not meet me in this challenge? Turn off the email notification, put down the cell phone, schedule time for friends and families, recharge those old batteries. Throw multitasking out the window and see where it leads. Be sure to email me (through Dance Studio Life) with stories about your experiences. And if you do, I promise to read them only during my newly dedicated email time

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2 Responses to “Multitasking: Friend or Foe?”

  • Wow, great insight! You have described my daily activities well too.. and I have frequently started classes in the afternoon thinking, exactly what have I accomplished today on my list. Wearing all of the different “hats” that we wear in running a studio can really be a challenge, and I have begun to feel like I just can’t accomplish much. Thanks for the insight into what may be my biggest time robber… allowing myself to get distracted from the tasks at hand.
    Please pass on any other hints.
    I plan to try not to multitask too. I’m praying and hoping to be able to meet you in the challenge to do that. I guess that means that, as soon as I’m done with this note, I need to log out of my email, and get to working on rehearsal schedules.
    I look forward to hearing more about your success with this!

  • I feel like you have hit the nail right on its head! That is exactly where I feel I am at the moment. I have begun to feel quite overwhelmed with the amount of work there is always yet to do… and my ‘To-Do’ list hasn’t even been looked at!
    I plan to NOT multi-task anymore! That might just give me those extra few hours of sleep per night that my body craves and prevent the terrible headaches.
    Thank you for the great info!

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