We all do it…we are on a Zoom call, the discussion does not apply to us, so we start crafting that email, or starting our grocery list. In fact, I started writing this, and then turned to my grocery list (and then my son needed me to help with online class, and then a text came in, and then I turned on music…). Three hours later I am back to writing.
Such is the fallacy of multitasking. Whether it is switching between tasks rapidly, being interrupted, or doing two things at once, multitasking makes us dumb. Literally. Researchers at the University of London found that when we are constantly responding to incoming information, such as emails and texts, our IQ drops by about 10 points. That is because of the dopamine/adrenaline mix that occurs with incoming information. It becomes our “sabre-toothed tiger” and puts us in a state of “crisis”. When that occurs, we do not engage with our pre-frontal cortex, and instead we are led by our brain stem functions.
In general, we work more slowly and make more mistakes when we try to multitask as opposed to single task. Researchers have found that the “switching costs” of going between tasks can take up as much as 40% of productive time (https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask). Our brains allow us to parallel process and hold several pieces of information in mind at once, but we cannot really do anything with that information. Doing something with information requires that we create new maps in our prefrontal cortex and connect it with what we already know to make sense of it. When we switch rapidly between tasks all of our cognitive resources are taken up with identifying what you want to shift to, and what the “right map” for that new activity is.
Picture yourself now with your team, leading a virtual meeting. People are off of camera. You have just shared important information, and want them to collectively help make sense of it and determine possible actions that might arise from this new information. You take a deep breath and wait for input: “so – what might we do now?” you ask. Crickets. A few people make some comments, mainly re-iterating what you have already said. This takes about 10 minutes…you look at the clock at the base of your computer. The meeting is about to wrap up in 2 minutes and you have another meeting right after with your boss who wants your team’s input. “Ok,” you say, “sounds like the option is that we just stay the course.” It was really what came to your mind in the first place. You are hesitant as you have a nagging feeling that you might be missing something. “Well,” you think to yourself, “maybe no action is best”. You thank the team for their time and jump to your next call.
So why didn’t you get more from your team? You have a good relationship with them. You know they feel safe sharing ideas. In person you know there would have been a lot of input. Maybe they were all multitasking, you ponder. You like your boss and feel comfortable sharing information with her, but often in large team meetings you like to get a few things done at the same time. Why would anyone else be any different?
There is no doubt about it. We are better in person. Let’s go back to Self-Determination Theory (which I am loving). We have three basic needs: to be autonomous, competent and connected. We aren’t as connected as we used to be in a virtual world so we seek to feel more “competent” and multitask so we can “get things done”. Consider it a mis-directed way of meeting our basic needs when we are online all the time.
Let’s ponder how we might re-align virtual work with Self-Determination Theory. As leaders, you need to: 1) engage and activate your team (competent and connected) to 2) put meaning in the routine aspects of work and harness individual strengths (autonomy and competence), which will 3) result in more engagement from the team (connected), and then 4) shifts towards a high-performing culture (competent). The starting point for all of this is how we structure our meetings purposefully to navigate the “think and explore” with the “doing and changing”. We tend to focus on “what do we do”, and not on “what do we think – that will inform what do we do”. As a result, we miss opportunities to hold meaningful dialogue that supports successful outcomes. People often say “go slow to go fast”, but don’t know how to do that meaningfully in practice. Much of it is based on the way we listen.
Our 2021 offerings are designed to support leaders in navigating this flow. We are kicking off the New Year with a workshop on how to facilitate teams in a virtual world, how we impact change and make policies come to life, and in May we will be offering the “how to” be the kind of leader that supports the development of a high-performing culture. These and other sessions are coming up in some new partnerships with wonderful organizations – stay tuned!
Want to learn more? You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or peruse our latest offerings.
Oh – and by the way, I was walking with my seven-year-old son the other day, having a lovely talk when he literally yelled out “squirrel” in response to the small creature that ran across our path. He happily returned to what he was saying without missing a beat. Maybe the next generation can multi-task? To be seen…