One Can’t Overestimate the Value of Focus

By Chris Holman

Have you ever been in a meeting, presenting or listening, looked around the room and noticed a number of participants praying? You know the signs… eyes toward the lap, hands below the table, the face locked in rapt attention… Hail Blackberry, full of text, my attention is towards thee

the Blackberry Prayer.

The new multitasking techno-culture is upon us. What is also obvious is that the new technologies have created cultures of use around themselves. Technology can increase an individual worker’s productivity, creativity and mobility. On the dark side, technology can cause the techno-addict to feel stressed, lost, and anxious.

Your Brain on Multitasking

Imagine this scenario. You are on a boring, but important, conference call. With one ear on the speaker, you begin checking your email. Up pops an IM from a co-worker with a question. Although it may seem like you are doing three things at once, or “simultaneous processing,” you aren’t really. What is going on in our heads is a rapid toggling back and forth, where our brain is ordering and deciding which task to do at any one time. The switching of attention from one task to the next, the toggling feat, happens in a region right behind the forehead called Brodmanns Area 10. The anterior prefrontal cortex allows us to leave something when it’s incomplete and return to the same place and continue from there. This is one of the last regions of the brain to mature and the first to decline… which may explain why young children and adults over 60 do not multitask as well.

What is really interesting is that when we try to perform two or more related tasks simultaneously, errors go way up. In some cases, it takes far longer, as much as double the time or more, to get the jobs done as compared to if they were done sequentially. Indeed, researchers at Kings’ College London University have found that techno overload can cause an IQ drop of 10 percentage points; it damages a worker’s performance by reducing mental sharpness. The drop in IQ is more significant among men than women. (Some of you are not surprised at this.) In other studies, the evidence is pretty consistent that, if one switches attention from a primary task to a secondary one, the time it takes to complete the first task increases by 25%. Finally, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos hampers our ability to focus and analyze, and in the long term, it ages us!

Chris Holman is a Senior Executive Coach of ClientWise LLC, an organization founded to support the financial advisory practice of the future. For more information, email cholman@clientwise.com or call 1-800-732-0876.

Copyright ClientWise 2008.