Multi-tasking increases workers’ error rate by 50%

The “benefits” of multitasking are increasingly becoming a myth in the workplace. According to research, office workers will make more errors and bad decisions the more they strive to complete numerous tasks at once.

Working practices have changed at such a rate that people feel the need to resolve several matters at once, however, they can make up to 50% more errors as they try to do so. According to Steelcase, the world leader in the provision of high performance workplace solutions, the principal reason for the misconception over multitasking is the result of incorrect assumptions about the brain and this has led to poorer performance, productivity and stress, due to workers feeling unable to deal effectively with their workload. 

Workers are having to juggle with pressures that were unheard of only a few years ago. The constant flow of emails and the multitude of social media messages and devices we use are just some of the reasons which contribute to workers feeling unable to cope and striving to deal with more tasks in less time has resulted in workers reporting a sense of anxiety, guilt and inability to deal with the work load.

Beatriz Arantes, psychologist and senior researcher at Steelcase said, “Stress at work is one of the largest occupational hazards of the 21st century. However businesses can increase employee wellbeing and productivity if they understood how the brain works, helping workers to prioritise the workload, and give each task the attention it needs, rather than engaging in multitasking. Everybody recognises that feeling of paralysis when the in tray is overflowing and e-mails and are coming in thick and fast. However, trying to deal with several problems at the same time is not an effective working strategy, leading to slower completion, increased error, and a dissatisfying feeling of being behind.” 

Steelcase has identified some of the most common mistakes we make at work:

1) I am more productive when I multitask. Research shows that error rates rise by 50% when workers multitask and it takes twice as long for them to complete their tasks. Our brains are simply not wired to continuously turn our attention to several things at once. Instead, write down your priorities and then tackle them one at a time. You’ll make faster, smarter decisions and also have the pleasure of crossing things off your list. A workplace that is free of distractions and disturbances will also help to protect your attention flow.

2) I can concentrate better when I sit. The reality is, static sitting sabotages our ability to concentrate. Static sitting sabotages our ability to concentrate, but movement stimulates production of the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which helps brain areas vital to learning, memory and concept thinking. Regular exercise during the day improves concentration.

3) Drawing is only for creative types. People think in shapes, pictures and patterns—not in numbers and letters. Using digital and analog tools to visualize information can support better thinking and increase focus. Assist your brain in organising information by sketching out your ideas or projecting what you are working on.

4) My brain is easily distracted and cannot change. Mindfulness training can help keeping your mind tuned in to the current moment. The practice has proven to increase gamma activity in the brain, indicating intensely focused thought. Consider identifying a place for moments of mindfulness and peace in the workplace.

5) If I work more hours, I will get more done. Just like our bodies, our brains also get tired. The brain’s capacity is limited and complete focus isn’t usually possible for longer than 45 minutes. Do your brain a favour and take breaks throughout the day. Move to a café or social area for rejuvenation after an extended period of focused work.

6) Four hours sleep a night is enough. Sleep plays an important role in our ability to focus and hold attention. When we are sleep–deprived, our ability to learn, focus and regulate our mood decreases. Sufficient sleep and brief relaxation breaks throughout the day will improve your thinking ability.

Arantes added "It is a clear case of the tortoise and the hare.  By helping businesses to understand these common mistakes and have a clearer understanding of how to work in a mindful way, workers will be able to work more effectively, and will be able to dedicate the degree of attention that each task deserves. Working well means working with our brain. " 

Created on: 14-Jan-16 15:56


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