Learning Lab

Leadership Training on Multitasking

By Amy Brann

Multitasking does have a place in modern leadership training and there’s an opportunity to go much deeper into it.

The reason for this is because if our aim is to create leaders who are efficient and effectively leading people, then we need to look at multitasking because it’s something that a lot of people feel that they need to do in today’s world. Leaders are often very special people; they have the ability to inspire people, bring people together and to get a result through who they are and they are often very special wonderful people. One of the biggest challenges that leaders tell us that they have during leadership trainings is finding enough time to think. People recognize that thinking is really important to their role as a leader.

So where does multitasking come in? Some people feel that they multitask on a regular basis and there’s one of a couple of different things that could actually be going on when we are multitasking. The working memory part of your brain that is used when you are focusing on tasks that may be difficult actually requires a lot of brain energy. This part of your brain can only be doing one thing at once. It just can’t do more than one thing at a time.

So in these cases multitasking is a myth because you can only do one task in this area at a time. Other parts of your brain can run things in the background. For example, almost everyone has driven somewhere at the same time been on a hands free set. So they’re been able to talk to someone while also driving and driving.  This involves two different parts of your brain and if the route is one you know well, then that can operate in the background, not taking up much energy. Most of us had the experience of driving somewhere and not being consciously aware of the route that they’re taking and that’s because it happens unconsciously. What’s fantastic with that is unconscious processes frees up the parts of your brain that require more energy to focus on other things. We’re going a little in depth into multitasking but I think it’s important to see why we need to look at this from a leadership training perspective.

So that’s one way that we can be multitasking, when two parts of the brain are doing different things. Like listening to music and doing exercise because we can combine things in a way that utilize other parts of our brain and that’s very easy from a multitasking perspective. Where it gets tricky and leadership trainings need to step it up a notch is when we’re trying to do something like answering emails while we’re on an important conference call and also proofreading document. If we’re trying to do all those things then that’s a bit extreme! Each of them are very important in terms of the capacity that they take from our brain. It isn’t possible to do each of these at the same time.

The idea that multitasking is happening in these situations is a myth and it’s not actually happening. If you were doing all of those tasks actually what is happening is that you’re doing them individually and then you’re switching between them quickly. This is what we’re talking about in terms of not being productive. Leadership training has a responsibility to teach people that by switching between individual things that have got high energy requirement from the brain your efficiency is dramatically reduced. In the switching process you lose time. Many studies have been done that illustrates the time lost between the switching. Over an extended period it will really becomes quite detrimental and it’s tiring your brain out much quicker than you need to. The best way of dealing on a situation like that is do one thing, get it done and move on to the next.

Another myth to look at in leadership training is the idea that women are much better in multitasking than men. The myth component of this is that women can multitask on these brain intensive things – but the truth is that they can’t do it either; no one can do it! One area of the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Women are better in creating the illusion of multitasking and the reason for this is that they’ve got a lot of white matter in their brain so they’ve got more ability to take in the information and then distribute it to where they want it to go. They also got a much thicker corpus callusom, which is an area of the brain that connects the two hemispheres so this we think enables much better communication between the two halves. Most people would agree that women can create a better illusion of multitasking.

That’s why I think multitasking does have a place in modern leadership training and there’s an opportunity to go much deeper into it. The brain can teach us how we can work best with it and get results that best correlate to our outcomes.

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