Stop Multitasking. Now.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by Feeling to a ladies’ event organized at the Mercedes Lounge during the Zoute Grand Prix. One of the keynote speakers at the event was Professor Elke Geraerts, specialized in Neuropsychology and i.a. postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and lecturer at St Andrews. Elke is also author of the fascinating book The New Mental. Unfortunately the book isn’t available in English yet, but I’m sure that this bestseller will be translated soon.

The “New Mental” is exactly the book that we all need. We’re currently facing a severe brain crisis, one of the causes of the current burn-out epidemic that affects approx. 10% of the working population. The culprits of the brain crisis are technology and the flexible working system, which makes mental rest valuable and rare.

Geraerts:”Nowadays, our brains are like a loose cannon. We are consumed by the illusion of the day. This leads to more stress because we don’t get anything done on the long term and we feel powerless. But the good news is: we can protect ourselves against stress and burn-out by training our brain, strengthening our mental resilience.

In order to help us to focus again, Elke gives us an array of tips, the so called “levers for a resilient brain”.

Here are the most important ones:

  1. Stop multitasking.
    There’s NOTHING good about multitasking, as shown by recent research. Multitaskers are 40% less productive, while they still think that they’re doing more. Apart from the loss of productivity, it’s also impossible to process new information consciously and it gives us the impression to lose self control. No need to persuade me personally by the way. I’ve never been an multitasking fan, so I’m happy that this illusion is finally off the table. But if it makes us so unhappy, why are so many people still doing it? Because a lot of people still believe that they can do it. They’re also used to it, so it takes a lot of self control to single-task. But that’s a matter of training ourselves and we can do this with small steps described in the book.
  2.  Chase elephants first. Don’t go after the rabbits.
    Setting priorities: that’s something we need to learn. Making To Do lists too. We tend to make To Do lists with small tasks that we can easily check off. By the time we get to the tasks that actually matter, we get exhausted. Elke calls these unimportant tasks “the rabbits“. The rabbits are hopping around us during the entire day and keep us from “the elephants” at the horizon. The elephants stand for the strategic, long-term tasks. This metaphor comes from the famous oil tycoon Thomas Boone Pickens: ” When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits.” In other words: Firefighting is a stress  factor. Quickly handling a question from a co-worker, a phone call, or e-mail, seems useful, but makes us unhappy. Making time for the elephants is crucial.

3. Doodle.
Research has shown that we’re not focused as much as we think we are. For 47% of our time our thoughts are wandering to other things. Apparently this 47% is what our brain needs. So instead of trying to bring the 47% down, we should try to maximize the time when we are working consciously. Elke’s advice is to be focused for 30 to 45 minutes and then make time for “boredom”. Not to watch YouTube videos or to read an e-mail, but to do real “mind wandering“. Doodling is also quite powerful as it eases the mind. These are the ideal moments to be creative.

4. Be out of reach.
Flexible work hours and technology have changed the way we work forever and allow our work to penetrate into our private life (and vice versa). Try to be out of reach from time to time. But not just for your professional activities. Also for your friends on social media. Give yourself a break from the screen. It will allow you to be in the moment and get back to your life.

Elke’s advice has been very helpful for me personally: I have changed my daily working schedule based upon her recommendations. Every colleague has a poster with the elephants on the wall and we have the occasional elephant jokes at the office. By the way, our team also uses SCRUM as a technique to be more efficient and agile. How we use Scrum in our weekly team routine will certainly be the topic of one of my following blog posts.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. sergehaubourdin says:

    It is a topic that comes up frequently when we coach people who are looking for more energy at work. In my blog posts you can read more about this. The hard part of the theory is as always in the integration and practice.
    Looking at some of our clients, I can say honestly that they don’t have a choice. So if you want to resolve this matter, it is a group observation together with the management to avoid excessive multi tasking. Only then people can feel in control of their working habits and energy throughout the day.

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