Why I don’t Bring My Laptop to Meetings: The Problem with Multi-Tasking
Have you ever had a really busy day, so busy that you use time in meetings to catch up on admin work like logging things in SalesForce or answering emails? I certainly have, and it was only recently that I made a conscious effort to stop multi-tasking in meetings after reading Your Brain at Work, an amazing book about neuroscience written by business consultant David Rock.
Our brains are designed to focus on one cognitive task at a time. In Your Brain at Work, Rock details how our pre-frontal cortex, the section of our brain capable of advanced cognitive functionality like speaking, listening, problem-solving, etc., has very limited bandwidth. Other parts of your brain can store information and form patterns, but when it comes to your pre-frontal cortex, it can only effectively handle so much at once.
Rock cites two studies that point out how dramatically our cognitive functionality is impacted when we multi-task.
The first, by Harold Pashler, reveals when people perform two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from a Harvard MBA to that of a 8-year-old. It’s a phenomenon called dual task interference. The problem isn’t doing any two things at once so much as doing two conscious mental tasks at once, unless you’re okay with a significant drop in performance.
What does this mean? Multi-tasking while sitting in a presentation will have both of the following results:
- Your capacity to absorb any of the information presented will be significantly diminished
- Your cognitive ability to answer emails or perform any other task using your brain will be seriously impacted.
If you take any pride in the quality of your work then you’re probably not okay with dropping to the level of a 8-year-old while performing your job tasks.
The second study Rock cites was commissioned by HP and carried out by Glenn Wilson at the University of London. He found constant email and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test, the same effect as missing a night’s sleep or smoking marijuana. The barrage of signals dramatically increases your allostatic load or reading of stress hormones and other factors relating to a sense of threat.
If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, you know how worthless you are the next day. I’m guessing you wouldn’t consider getting high and coming to work. You may be coming to work with the same level of cognitive ability unintentionally.
All this to say:
- You can only focus on one conscious task at a time
- Switching between tasks uses energy; if you do this a lot you can make more mistakes
- If you do multiple conscious tasks at once you will experience a big drop-off in accuracy or performance
- The only way to do two mental tasks quickly, if accuracy is important, is doing one of them at a time