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Are We Multi-Tasking Our Way Into Zero Productivity?

Want to unlock the secret to optimize productivity? One word: FOCUS.

Ah, modern technology. Love it and can't live without it but when it comes to text messages, voicemails, e-mails, IMs, the internet, Twitter...are we multi-tasking ourselves into getting absolutely nothing done at work?

I turned to Dr. Robert F. Bornstein, psychology professor at Adelphi University for answers. "The best way to understand the link between distraction and productivity," he says, "is in terms of two related phenomena: selective attention and divided attention." So, multi-tasking impairs productivity in the workplace primarily because people are limited in their ability to divide their attention. "It's not really possible to be texting (or chatting) and devoting adequate attention to another resource-intensive task (like editing a document.) Each time we do this we lose some of the information from the task we performed most recently. "It fades from short-term memory. We must then refocus to regain that information when we switch our attention back to the original task, which takes time and effort."

Acknowledging that multitasking requires more effort than remaining focused, what's an employee to do? How can you "shut it off" while accomplishing more in less amount of time? For instance, I recently attended an Intel luncheon about women and technology and as it became fascinating how people use technology around the globe, the hours of the work day are boundarylessness. So is geography.

We're doing more work for the job at night in our pajamas, on weekends and dare I say it? On vacation. And as women in particular take on some of the "domestic" techie roles like online shopping or uploading family photos to a social networking site, the multi-tasking becomes blurred, too. Yes, we're doing more and mixing up work with pleasure but again, are we truly being productive? Better yet, how can we minimize the muli-tasking temptations amidst our daily lives?

"Without hesitation productivity is maximized when we focus on one task at a time," says Dr. Bornstein. His advice? Prioritize tasks and focus on each one in turn. "If we can't complete a task before turning our attention to a new one, it's best to stop at a natural break point - a place where we've completed some portion of the task so we can pick up at that point later on."

The alternative of not focusing and being easily distracted has several drawbacks. It's stressful, impairs work performance, and is emotionally disruptive, too. "Which is why when we try to mulitask we go home at the end of the day feeling burned out and exhausted. We've experienced - quite literally - information overload. A healthy work style is one where we allow ourselves to engage each task fully and completely rather than trying to simultaneously manage several competing tasks, albeit ineffectively."

So, the take-away for this blog post is to see how many windows you currently have open and if you've toggled between more than one of them in the past five minutes, better yet, if you're still reading this blog and haven't diverted your attention to another one, therein lies the answer.

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