Regardless of outward appearances, we aren’t quite
as efficient in our multitasking as we might think
By Dorothy Garlough, RDH, MPA
I recently bit my tongue while facilitating a team discussion (and, yes, I rinsed with warm salt water). I knew that what two of the team members were saying was incorrect. They were proclaiming to be exceptionally good multitaskers, yet I could not intelligently articulate why I believed this to be highly unlikely. Besides, it is hard to call others out on something while knowing that I myself multitask way too often.
I made a note to educate myself on the science of multitasking and hopefully accomplish two objectives: One, to create stronger mindfulness habits, and two, to avoid the illusion of explanatory depth—i.e., the gap between what we think we know and what we actually know. Writing this article will enable me to address the subject of multitasking with the team in an educated way.
Electronic devices and our flitting from one social network to another, along with multifaceted demands, seem to pull us in different directions these days. The dental profession itself is explosive with multitasking requirements for all staff members. Doctors and hygienists are often interrupted to answer scheduling questions, take phone calls from specialists, provide periodontal care to anxious patients, perform hygiene checks, and more. The nature of administrative staff duties entails multitasking as well, with ringing phones and looming patients and team members.1
Many of us feel invigorated as we answer a tsunami of e-mails, manage texts, and lead discussions simultaneously. But we aren’t quite as efficient as we may think. In fact, there is generally an inverse relationship between how good people are at multitasking and how good they think they are. Although some “supertaskers” actually show increased efficiency as they handle multiple tasks coming at them, these people make up only 2% of the population.2
What happens when multitasking occurs?
Multitasking shifts our attention back and forth, requiring our brain time to refocus. Our performance is reduced because our brains lack the ability to perform multiple tasks successfully. Stanford University studies show that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40%.2 Our brains require 20% of our oxygen, and this power draw uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain, which exhausts us.
Professor Gloria Mark, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine, says that when people are interrupted, it typically takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to their work. Most people will succumb to two other tasks before getting back to their original project.3 This switching between tasks leads to a buildup of stress. Dr. Mark advises instead that we spend 25 minutes to two hours working on projects individually. If we attempt to multitask and spend less than 25 minutes on a challenging task, she says, “You’re barely getting warmed up before you quit.”
Research is ongoing to see if multitasking physically damages the brain long term, but one thing is clear—it has negative effects.
Not all tasks require our concentration, says Professor Hal Pashler, PhD, at the University of California, San Diego. When we perform tasks on autopilot, such as ironing, it makes sense to have a conversation with another person or listen to a podcast. However, when we attempt to do two challenging tasks at the same time, our efficiency diminishes.
One of the problems with technology today is that we get a hit (perceived as a reward) intermittently. This is a random reinforcement and actually strengthens multitasking behavior. Research has shown that by being frequently interrupted, we can develop a short attention span and begin to self-interrupt, extending the length of time to finish tasks.
It is alarming to note that research from the University of London found that subjects who multitasked while performing cognitive tasks reduced their IQ to that of an eight-year-old.4 The IQs in tests lowered 15 points, so the next time you are writing out a complicated treatment plan and are interrupted, remember that your cognitive capacity is that of an eight-year-old!
Brain damage from multitasking
Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK studied MRI brain scans of people spending time on multiple devices, such as texting while viewing TV. Then, they compared the scans to those who did not text while watching TV. Results showed that those who multitasked had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex. This is noteworthy, because this is the region of the brain that is responsible for cognitive and emotional control as well as empathy.
Neuroscientist Kep-Kee Loh, MSc, who led this study, explained its implications: “I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think, and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.” Research is ongoing to see if multitasking physically damages the brain long term, but one thing is clear—it has negative effects.3
Even if it is proven that there is no long-term damage, we all need to self-regulate multitasking because of the diminished ability to concentrate, pay attention to detail, and organize. Multitasking in inappropriate settings indicates low self- and social-awareness—two emotional intelligence (EQ) skills that are key to success in the workplace.
Model the behavior you want to see. Show respect for others by giving them your full attention. Be attentive in meetings and even make a display of closing your laptop and turning off your phone.
Be conscious of how meetings are run. Create boundaries for meetings, such as making sure everyone participates, and reduce distractions by keeping electronic gear off and posting a “do not disturb” sign.
Encourage a “be here now” culture. Encourage mindfulness at the start of meetings. Ask someone to create an intention for the meeting, and take a few minutes to practice this breathing exercise: Take a deep breath, hold it for a count of five, and then slowly release. Repeat this exercise five times.
Chunk your time. Set aside dedicated chunks of time for each separate activity. Create the habit of checking your e-mail only in the morning, at midday, and at the end of the day. Follow disciplined routines with social media sites.
Create a system in your office. Experiment with systems that can alert clinicians of next priorities. Take care not to interrupt clinicians, but create a method to bring pressing tasks to their attention before they move on to another task. This could be as simple as a note board outside of each operatory with a Post-it note as to what requires the clinician’s immediate attention next.
Shifting ingrained habits from multitasking to “singletasking” isn’t an easy thing to do. But learning the science behind the so-called skill might help persuade us of the need to become more mindful and purposeful in our tasks.
Armed with evidence of what multitasking is and how it affects us, I will now be able to explain it to the team members who believe they are exceptional multitaskers. This newfound knowledge will help me avoid the illusion of explanatory depth and give me confidence. I now “know of what I speak.” Whether I can implement the personal discipline to slow down and mindfully stay on task with that which is in front of me is another question. But at least I know the science.
1. Doyle A. Multitasking skills list and examples. The Balance website. https://www.thebalance.com/multitasking-skills-with-examples-2059692. Updated June 9, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.
2. Quast L. Want to be more productive? Stop multi-tasking. Forbes website. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2017/02/06/want-to-be-more-productive-stop-multi-tasking/#78b72ee655a6. Published February 6, 2017. Accessed October 25, 2017.
3. Goldhill O. Neuroscientists say multitasking literally drains the energy reserves of your brain. Quartz at Work website. https://qz.com/722661/neuroscientists-say-multitasking-literally-drains-the-energy-reserves-of-your-brain/. Published July 3, 2016. Accessed October 25, 2017.
4. Bradberry T. Multitasking damages your brain and career, new studies suggest. Forbes website. https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/#238ef47556ee. Published October 8, 2014. Accessed October 25, 2017.
DOROTHY GARLOUGH, RDH, MPA, is an innovation architect, facilitating strategy sessions and forums to orchestrate change within dentistry. As an international speaker and writer, Dorothy trains others to broaden their skill-set to include creativity, collaborative innovation, and forward thinking. She recognizes that engagement is the outcome when the mechanisms are put in place to drive new innovations. Connect with her at [email protected] or visit engagingteams.com.