If you are reading this, chances are that you are awash in a sea of information. Most of that information is useless data. Some of it is highly refined junk. If this information were a food product, it would be filled with high fructose corn syrup. A human being can only digest so much information. The human brain is not designed to process the amount of raw data that a modern 21st century lifestyle tends to bombard all of us with. Information overload is a reality for many modern workers. In my experience, long-term exposure to information overload has lasting negative consequences on productivity. Although probably not permanent, these effects are detrimental to an organization’s decision making power and to its ability to move projects forward towards successful completion. The solution to this problem is simple.
Remove all expectations that your organization’s employees should be doing two, three or even five things at once. Such an approach to business only ensures that the quality of the tasks a person is juggling goes down corresponding to the number and complexity of the tasks juggled. If you expect your employees to work on five tasks concurrently, then lower your output quality expectations by 500%. Do not take my word for it; listen to the former chief information officer at Google.
“As smart as you think you are, your brain can only handle so much, so stop over-extending it by trying to check Twitter, read the web and use email all at once.”
That is what Google’s ex-CIO, Douglas Merrill told a reporter.
When we are trying to do a bunch of things at the same time, we are just being inefficient, he says.
“Your short-term memory is limited to holding five to nine elements. If you do more than that at once, you will drop things. The process of moving things from the short term memory to the long term memory is error prone,” says Douglas.
Douglas has a Ph.D in cognitive science from Princeton, was CIO at Google, and a COO at EMI. Now, he’s working on a stealth startup in the financial services space. He also just released a new book called, “Getting Organized In The Google Era,” in which he tries to help people stay focused.
One of Douglas’ five key points for getting things is never multitask. Got it? Don’t encourage others to multitask. Don’t support multitasking. Don’t text and drive. Don’t do a phone conference while you are on the toilet. Do not shred confidential papers while you are typing a love letter to your significant other. Focus. The other four tips offered by Douglas Merrill are good but the key tip is our information society’s biggest failing. The expectation that we multitask from the moment we wake until the moment our eyes close in sleep is ridiculous. It leads to early burnout and high blood pressure. It leads to lower quality decision making. Multitasking is evil.
Fight the urge and demand that those under your sphere of influence do so as well. You and the organizations you represent will all benefit from your intensity and singular concentration. Substance addicts should take one day at a time. Information addicts need to take one task at a time.