As I was travelling on the bus this morning, I witnessed what I thought was going to be a shocking moment. Had it not been for this very attentive driver who slammed the brakes in good time to avoid the collision, the pedestrian, his head buried in his telephone would probably be lying in a hospital bed. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a similar scene but this morning was a close shave.
In this day and age, thanks to modern technologies, we are all trying to do more than one thing at once. We are persuaded that this is the way to performance, to higher efficiency. But is it? Is multitasking an efficient way to get more things done? As a former fast jet pilot I can tell you that this is not how we do things.
And believe me when I say that we know a thing or two about performance and stressful environments. Fast jet pilot don’t multitask. They sequence their tasks very efficiently but each task receives the full attention it deserves.
Fast jet pilots have a very powerful priority system that helps them decide what task must be handle next, how long should be dedicated to its completion and what should be done thereafter. Because they are super trained they can also scan their environment in a fraction of a second and decide what needs being dealt with, make a decision as to how, do it and turn their attention to the next task. And they do it time and time again. But don’t get me wrong here. I don’t mean that whilst they’re focusing on a task, they are oblivious of their surrounding like our pedestrian fiddling with his phone. Quite the opposite in fact. To become a good fast jet pilot you must be able to develop outstanding situation awareness. You must be able to instantaneously recognise that the situation has changed and that according to the priority system mentioned above, your full attention is required somewhere else. But that’s not multitasking.
Multitasking has been proven to be the worst way to improve your efficiency. It is a waste of time and efforts and it makes you grossly underperform. It also alters your emotional intelligence (your ability to engage with others) and some studies also suggest that it reduces your memory. In a world where interaction, i.e. communication is key, don’t you think that it is ironic that most people engage in it through multitasking?
Stanford university, CA, published in 2009 a report that demonstrated that multi-taskers seriously underperformed compared to single-taskers. According to Prof C Nass, multi-taskers are “suckers for irrelevancy” ; It is simply impossible for the brain to engage thoughtfully into more than one task at a time. Yes you can watch television or read your emails when you’re having lunch, but can you remember what your food tasted like? and how much you ate?
Depending on the degree of complexity of the tasks at hand, your brain will require from a few seconds to 1 minute to refocus and make sense of the new situation. This is particularly true when tasks are similar in nature e.g. talking and writing as they require the same part of the brain. The result is a slow down of your brain with a significant drop of you IQ.
Sussex University, United Kingdom, published in 2014 another interesting report that highlights the fact that multi-tasking actually reduces the part of your brain that processes information. Using functional MRI, the researchers found that people who multitask also have a smaller grey matter density in the region of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional functions. So not only do you underperform when you multitask, you also reduce your chances of being able to process information in the future.
There seems to be a scientific explanation to the fact that people like multitasking. Each time we achieve something, whether big or small, our brain produces a small amount of dopamine, an hormone that gives us a sense of well being. When you are multitasking, you get the sense of doing things and to some extend you fool your brain so you can get a dose of dopamine released in your blood stream. Reading an email could sometimes be enough to get that drop of dopamine. That’s why some of us really crave their emails, to the point of addiction. However with multitasking comes underachievement as we have seen before which results in the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, which will make us more aggressive and impulsive.No wonder then that in the world of fast jets where underperformance could lead to disastrous results, pilots don’t multitask. Perhaps you too could start to sequence your activities and engage fully in their completion. Then will you get a fat drop of dopamine without the cortisol.
About the author
Emmanuel is a mentor and a motivational speaker. He is passionate about leadership and strategy. He is a former fast jet pilot and senior officer.