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Technology, Multitasking, Stress and "Flow" – Critical Information You Need to Be at Your Best
“Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then help orchestrate the energy of those around you.”
Peter F. Drucker
“We must always change, renew, rejuvenate; otherwise, we become hardened.”
Are you busier than ever and enjoying it less and less? Do you end up too tired and frustrated at the end of the day to enjoy your evening or “discovery” time? Is is there more downtime? What follows is what I believe to be the most critical information you can incorporate into your life in the coming year, both to protect yourself from an exceptionally stressful environment and to excel in your performance and productivity.
Since 2001, when researcher Joshua Rubenstein, Ph.D. of the Federal Aviation Administration, and David Meyer, Ph.D. and Jeffrey Evans. Ph.D. both from the University of Michigan, published their groundbreaking research in the Journal of experimental Medicine, we’ve learned that multitasking has its problems. In their work, they showed that shifting mental gears takes time, especially when switching to less familiar tasks.
To better understand executive control, or the “inner CEO,” researchers had groups of young adult subjects switch between tasks of varying complexity (such as solving math problems) and measured the speed of their performance. In all cases, their measurements indicated that subjects wasted time on the tasks, actually did less than if they were done separately, and took significantly longer to switch tasks when they were more complex or not they knew them
Since then, a significant body of research has developed that demonstrates similar losses in productivity and performance as a result of multitasking. Even more worryingly, some recent studies have shown that multitasking increases the levels of certain stress hormones, especially cortisol and adrenaline, which in the long term wear out our body’s systems, increasing our risk of many health problems. serious health problems and causing us to age prematurely.
In the past eight years since this initial research was published, the challenges to our personal time and work-life balance have increased exponentially. Along with increasingly complex technology and its increasing availability, expectations of our personal availability have increased. These advances in communications technology have allowed us to be available at any time of the day and any day of the week, and the ever-expanding global nature of the business has further fueled this demand. More recently, depressed economic conditions and related deep staff cuts have left us, almost everywhere, with fewer people and longer working hours.
The pressure to multitask is great. In many organizations it has become the norm, but as mentioned above, the costs can be huge. The illusion of speed and doing more in less time is very attractive, but it is usually just an illusion. The loss of performance quality is high, but not as high as the potentially devastating long-term health costs due to increased stress and personal and family relationships as a result of never being present at all
What is the cure for excessive reliance on multitasking and its subsequent consequences? I’ve recently heard the term “continuous partial attention” to describe what is increasingly typical of our current behaviors and I find it distressingly accurate.
– In an important meeting at a local high school that would have a significant impact on the student’s future, the student later noted that the principal had spent the entire meeting (almost an hour and a half) texting down the table.
– At a recent lunch meeting with another executive coach, while answering his question and taking a bite of my salad, I looked up to see him checking his email on his new phone.
– A senior job applicant recently told me that his interviewer (and future boss) had received three phone calls and had three full phone conversations about (seemingly) non-urgent matters while he was sitting around there.
– Numerous customers have told me that they regularly answer business emails, faxes, phone calls or text messages from home and on vacation.
– Almost as many have complained that their spouse or partner “disappears into email” for long periods of time in the evenings and weekends, effectively eliminating any “family time” or “couple time.”
What is the most important piece of information I can give you as you begin 2009? See the three strategies below:
1. Limit multitasking. Set clear boundaries for work and non-work activities. Turn off electronic devices at set times and teach co-workers what constitutes an “emergency” that would warrant them contacting you after hours. If you have a leadership role, model it for your staff and the organization, and clearly communicate what you are doing.
2. Be fully present. Whether it’s a child, spouse, coworker, or employee, make a conscious choice to be present with them without interruption from other technology and tasks. With colleagues and staff, this should be as often as they need your attention for work-related activities. For family and significant others, this has to happen every day.
3. When you work, WORK! And when you play, PLAY! In “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz they repeatedly point out that the key to high performance is managing energy not time. They claim that alternating periods of intense effort (or work) with periods of complete renewal (or relaxation and “play”) is necessary to maintain health, high performance, and productivity. In addition, many researchers have shown that one of the biggest predictors of happiness and one of the most powerful protectors we have against the negative effects of stress, is to frequently be in a state of “flow”. In other words, being totally absorbed in an activity, so much so that we lose track of time. This is impossible during multitasking. And, the deep recovery needed to do our best work is impossible if we never allow ourselves to fully relax and “play.”
I urge you to implement these three strategies in the coming year. Buck the trend toward “continuous partial attention” and watch the change in yourself, your organization, and others around you.
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