Studies show that in an average workplace, employees were distracted or interrupted every 3rd minute and had 8 windows open on their computers at a time. This multitasking makes us more prone to mistakes, more likely to miss important information, and less likely to retain information in our working memory. This impairs problem-solving and creativity.

What is working memory?

Our working memory is a brain system that provides temporary and limited storage. It is necessary for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping us aware of our surroundings. Our working memory is in charge of our concentration and our ability to focus on our work and organise our days. It helps us connect experience and knowledge with present action. Poor working memory from overload, tiredness and lack of energy makes us forgetful, absent-minded, and easily distracted by our surroundings.

We develop different strategies to cope with multitasking, and these efforts to take control and reduce stress will eventually have a negative effect on the individual and organisational performance. This can lead to low confidence, worry, and low mood.

Multitasking weakens performance

Researchers found that those who multitasked the most performed poorly on a variety of tasks. They did not focus as well as those who did not multitask, were more distractible, and weaker at organising information and shifting from one task to another. The problem was that the multitaskers couldn’t help but think about the task they were not doing. They could not stay focused.

How we feel affects our focus

Our brain is sophisticated and it has a tendency to plan ahead, which is good for our goal-directed behaviour. The flip side of the coin is that this planning sometimes comes with worry; we can easily get caught up in anticipation stress. These negative emotions can easily lead to a downward spiral of negativity and low confidence. Emotions affect our ability to solve problems and ignore distractions; negative emotions affect our awareness while positive emotions improve our working memory.

Tips for efficiency at work:

Some of us get caught up in the stress of our to-do-lists. We see Mount Everest and focus on all the work that needs to be done to reach our goal.

  1. Focus on the first step. Every time you come up with a new task that needs to be done, write it down. Let your working memory focus on more important things instead of wasting it on something that you can check on your to-do-list.
  2. Every time you are interrupted by a colleague, e-mail or phone call and you forgot what you’re doing, go back to your to-do-list. Let it be your guide.
  3. Make sure you only have the windows you need for that particular task opened on your computer. If possible, close down your email and check it 2-3 times a day, depending on the job you do. To constantly check how much e-mail we have can easily get us trapped in stress.

Increasing positive emotions like joy and contentment enhances our cognitive resources and working memory. If we feel that we can manage our workload, we experience positive emotions and can surf into an upward spiral of positive emotions. This leads to better problem-solving skills, more creativity, resilience, and efficiency at work.

Written by Lotta Wallin, consultant in L&D, In focus and well-being Ltd.

Lotta Wallin, a consultant in L&D who works in an International environment with sustaining behavior change by utilizing evidence based methods, tools and assessments. Lotta has broad experience from cognitive behavioral therapy and executive coaching, she is a specialist in adult learning and human behavior, for academic institutions as well as corporate organizations. She designs and delivers training in leadership and positive psychology, to name a few.

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