In our fast-paced society, we're constantly bombarded with stimuli from multiple directions. Phones, TV, music, conversations and food are often lumped together in one chaotic experience. Work isn't much different. Most professionals attempt to check email, attend meetings, and work on tasks simultaneously. Multi-tasking has become more than a commodity; it's a requirement.
However, there has been a great debate over whether or not multi-tasking is beneficial or harmful. In our two-part series, we'll explore the pros and cons of multi-tasking, particularly for female managers. Juggling multiple tasks can improve productivity, but at what cost?
The Science of Multi-Tasking
In order to weigh of the benefits of multi-tasking, it's important to understand the truth behind the skill. Most people mistake multi-tasking as the ability to give attention to multiple stimuli at once. This is a misconception and a misnomer. The human brain is actually not capable of taking in that much information at once.
Multi-tasking is technically the act of rapidly switching focus back and forth between stimuli. Think of it as "task-switching" instead. Studies show that the brain takes in information through a single switchboard-like hub called the posterior lateral prefrontal cortex. Once the switchboard processes new information, it reroutes it to another part of the brain, for instance where decisions are made. In short, we have to sort information before we can react to it.
When the brain is overloaded with stimuli, the switchboard lines up each new piece of information into a queue. Only one stimuli can be processed at a time. The stimuli start to bottleneck at the switchboard and the entire process slows down. Effective multi-taskers train their brains to sort stimuli faster and therefore speed up the switching process.
Are Women Better Multi-Taskers?
There has been a significant increase in multi-tasking research within the past 50 years, (mostly due to the growth of multi-tasking in general.) Cognitive scientists are learning more and more about the differences between male and female brain activity. Studies suggest that while men and women perform task-switching with equal results, men tend to require more brain activity do to so. Men tend to need more mental resources to rapidly switch focus.
When overloaded with tasks, women are more likely to access a situation and plan accordingly, while men tend to be more impulsive and act quicker. There is great debate as to whether these tendencies are biological or the result of socialization. Throughout history, men have been hunters who need quick reflexes. Their primary purpose was finding food. In contrast, women have been designated care givers who are responsible for raising children and maintaining the household. Women have technically been multi-tasking much longer than men.
Since women seem to be inherently better at task-switching, female managers have many advantages in business. The following leadership skills may be easier for you than for your male counterpart.
Wear Many Hats: In addition to assigning projects and keeping your team on track, you may be responsible for calculating budgets, locating resources or even hiring new staff. You not only juggle multiple responsibilities, but are capable of devoting the necessary care to complete each task effectively.
Tackle Complex Problems: Since women are more likely to think before they act, you take the time to analyze a situation. You weigh the pros and cons and develop a strategy instead of just throwing out the first solution that comes to mind.
Be Calm Under Pressure: When crunch time comes, you know how to stay organized. You don't crack under pressure, because you know how to focus on priorities. You're equipped with the stamina to withstand the stress.
Climb the Ladder: Since you have skills in many different areas, task-switching is an impressive talent that can help advance your career. Your ability to focus is coveted among leaders.
How to Switch Tasks Effectively
Even though women use less mental resources when task-switching, it's still a very energy-intensive activity. If you want to strengthen your cognitive abilities, practice Balancing Accessibility and Productivity. Follow these best-practices to switch focus only when necessary. Avoid stretching yourself too thin.
Make a To-Do List: Before you start work, make a list of your responsibilities for the day. Include duties assigned by your superior, work tossed back to you from your team and anything else you know needs to get done. Make note of the most mentally taxing projects that require intense focus. In fact, make notes and lists all day long! Don't put extra stress on your brain by trying to memorize every tiny detail.
Prioritize Duties: If you have a project that must be completed by today, can only be done by you, and will cost the company millions of dollars, obviously it should move to the top of the priority list. If you have a simple task that doesn't need to be finished until next week, then move it to the bottom of the priority list. Try to complete urgent, mentally intensive projects first.
Schedule Task and Break Blocks: Assign a certain length of time dedicated to each task. For instance, allot one hour to Managing Email, one hour for a staff meeting, two hours to create a presentation, etc. Be very specific and don't forget to include time for food and stretch breaks! Dedicating time for your brain to refuel will actually improve your focus and increase your stamina. You'll actually make fewer mistakes if you commit to refreshing your energy every two or three hours.
Reduce Stress: If you're feeling overworked and overwhelmed your body is going to start to deteriorate. If your body isn't operating at maximum capacity, how can you expect your brain to do so? Try to strive for balance at home and at work. If you aren't getting along with family members or co-workers, aren't exercising enough or just aren't feeling well, your productivity will suffer.
Stay Confident: Studies show that men tend to over-estimate their multi-tasking ability, while women under-estimate it. You are naturally equipped with the skills to tackle tough situations, so don't let doubts get in the way of your productivity!
Task-switching can be a valuable skill that allows you to solve complex problems and stay organized. It's a a coveted trait in the business world and for once being female has it's advantages. However, switching focus constantly can be detrimental to your health. Next week we'll explore why you should only multi-task when absolutely necessary.
Want to learn more about how you can use your natural skills and talents to climb the ladder? Discover your inner power with Mastering Confidence. Or gain access to the entire library of resources, current and future, with the new program in our toolkit: SK4M Connect.