Technology, Multitasking, Stress and "Flow" – Critical Information You Need to Be at Your Best

“Your first and foremost job as a leader is to take charge of your own energy and then to help orchestrate the energy of those around you.”

Peter F. Drucker

“We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise, we harden.”


Are you busier than you have ever been and enjoying it less and less? Do you end up too tired and frustrated at the end of the day to enjoy your evening or your “down” time? Is there any down time any more? What follows is what I think is the most critical piece of information that you can incorporate into your life in the coming year, both to buffer yourself from an exceptionally stressful environment, and, to excel in your performance and productivity.

Since 2001, when researcher Joshua Rubenstein, Ph.D. from the Federal Aviation Administration, and David Meyer, Ph.D. and Jeffrey Evans. Ph.D. both from the University of Michigan, published their groundbreaking research in the Journal of experimental Medicine, we have known that multitasking has its problems. In their work, they demonstrated that shifting mental gears costs time, especially when shifting to less familiar tasks.

To better understand executive control or the “Inner C.E.O”, the researchers had groups of young adult subjects switch between tasks of varying complexity (such as solving math problems), and measured the speed of their performance. In all cases, their measurements indicated that the subjects lost time on tasks, actually getting less done than if they were doing the tasks separately, and, it took them significantly longer to switch tasks when they were of greater complexity or unfamiliar.

Since this time, a sizable body of research has developed demonstrating similar losses in productivity and performance resulting from multitasking. Even more worrisome, some recent studies have shown that multitasking increases the levels of certain stress hormones, particularly cortisol and adrenaline, which on a long-term basis wears down our bodies’ systems, increasing our risk of many serious health problems and causing us to age prematurely.

In the last eight years since this initial research was published, challenges to our personal time and to our work life balance have increased exponentially. Along with ever more complex technology and its increasing availability have come increased expectations of our personal availability. These advancements in communications technology have allowed us to be available at any hour of the day on any day of the week, and the continuously expanding global nature of business has further fueled this demand. Most recently, the depressed economic conditions and related deep cutbacks in staffing have left us, almost everywhere, with fewer people and longer working hours.

The pressure to multitask is great. In many organizations it has become the norm, yet as mentioned above, the costs can be enormous. The illusion of speed and doing more with less time is very appealing, but it is usually only an illusion. The loss of quality of performance is high, but not nearly as high as the potentially devastating long-term costs to health due to increased stress and to personal and family relationships as a result of never being fully present.

What’s the cure for over reliance on multitasking and its subsequent consequences? I have recently heard the term “continuous partial attention” in describing what is more and more typical of our behaviors today and I find it to be distressingly accurate.

Several examples:

– At an important meeting at a local high school which would have a significant impact on the student’s future, the student noted afterward that the principal had spent the entire meeting (nearly and hour and a half), texting under the table.

– At a recent lunch meeting with another executive coach, while responding to his question, and reaching for a bite of my salad, I looked up to see him checking his e-mail on his new phone.

– A high-level job applicant told me recently that his interviewer (and prospective boss) had taken three phone calls and carried on three complete phone conversations about (apparently) non-urgent topics, while he sat there.

– Numerous clients have told me that they regularly answer business, e-mails, faxes, or phone or text messages from home and while on vacation.

– Nearly as many have complained about their spouse or partner “disappearing into e-mail” long into the evening and on weekends, effectively eliminating any “family time” or “couple time.”

What’s the most important piece of information I can give you as you start 2009? See the three strategies below:

1. Limit Multitasking. Set up clear boundaries for yourself for work and non-work activities time. Shut off electronic devices at defined times, and teach co-workers what is “an emergency” that would warrant them contacting you after-hours. If you are in a leadership role, model this for your staff and the organization, and communicate clearly what you are doing.

2. Be fully present. Whether it’s with a child, a spouse, a co-worker, or an employee, make a conscious choice to be present with them without interruptions from other technology and tasks. With colleagues and staff, this should be as often as they need your attention for work-related activities. For family and significant others, this needs to happen every day.

3. When you work, WORK! And, when you play, PLAY! In “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz they repeatedly make the point that the key to high performance is managing energy not time. They make the case that alternating periods of intense effort (or work) with periods of complete renewal (or relaxation and “play.”) is necessary for continuing health, high performance and productivity. In addition, many researchers have shown that one of the greatest predictors of happiness and one of the most potent protectors we have against the negative effects of stress, is being frequently in the state of “flow.” In other words, being totally absorbed in an activity, so much so that we lose track of time. This is impossible while multitasking. And, the deep recovery needed to do our best work is impossible if we never fully allow ourselves to fully relax and “play.”

I urge you to implement these three strategies in the coming year. Buck the trend toward “continuous partial attention” and watch the change in yourself, your organization and others around you.