Category Archives: Uncategorized

Are You Making Good Decisions?

good decisionWhen I’m working with a client we will often talk about decision-making strategies and how to make better decisions. It is an important subject and a surprising one for many people.

For instance, did you know that as logical as you think you are when you make decisions, you mostly make decisions based on emotions?

If You Don’t Believe Me? Try This…

Make the best choice here.

  • Scenario One: You can choose between a free gift of $8 or $10.
  • Scenario Two: You can choose between a free gift of $8 (and a stranger will receive $8) or a gift of $10 (and a stranger will receive $12). Notice that the result is the same for you—in both scenarios you either get $8 or $10.

Which do people choose most of the time?

Well, as you might guess, in Scenario One, nearly everybody chooses the $10 option. However, in Scenario Two, there is a difference in what people choose.

Why would people choose to receive $8 instead of $10?

Alas, the answer is those pesky emotions sometimes make us settle on an illogical choice.

Experimenters* found that people who feel threatened or are concerned with their social status will often choose to receive $8 if the stranger will also receive $8 rather than receive $10 if the stranger will receive $12.

Here’s the bottom line: When people focus on security (an emotional need) they rely on “relative outcomes” ($10 to me, but $12 to a stranger) rather than “absolute outcomes” ($8 to me or $10 to me). Our decision-making brain is influenced that strongly by emotions. In the first case, people wanted to protect themselves from being assigned a lower rank. In the second, they were looking for the best and most positive overall result.

So What Should We Do?


Be aware of when we feel threatened and be careful about making decisions in that condition.
Try to focus on total value and overall growth.

As leaders and managers

Set an atmosphere of safety in the workplace so that coworkers and subordinates do not feel threatened and make bad decisions based on safety.
Be aware of you own feelings of insecurity and make decisions based more on growth and value rather than protection.

*Jun Gu, Vanessa K. Bohns, Geoffrey J. Leonardelli. Regulatory focus and interdependent economic decision-making. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.11.008

Wait For It…

Sad BulldogWe talked last time about the marshmallow experiment where children were tested for their ability to delay gratification. As you may remember, children who were able to wait a few minutes in order to receive a greater reward, also had higher social skills, higher emotional skills, were more self-confident, had higher IQ’s, and higher scores on the SAT test.

We also mentioned last time that greater success in relationships, business, and leadership is associated with the proper mix of time orientation. That mix seems to be a positive view of the past (without concentrating on past events), a focus on the present, with a moderately high focus on the future.

Today we will apply these insights and talk about how to better delay gratification and live in a better time orientation mix.

Delaying Gratification

As with most things, the ability to delay gratification is somewhat inside and outside our control. Two studies point to the fact that our personality and social setting can make it harder for us to wait for a reward. One study* found that extroverts have a harder time with delayed gratification and another study** found that nearly all people are less likely to wait for a reward in a negative social setting. That is, it is harder to wait for a reward if the person giving the reward is not considered trustworthy.

But, even if you are an extrovert and are in a poor social setting, there are some things you can do to improve your ability to delay gratification.

Three of the most important things you can do are:

1. Know what you want to do. Think of things that are important to you and may be difficult to achieve, then set a goal to reach that objective.

2. Make a plan. Figure out the best way reach that goal and write it down. The “writing it down” part is much more important than you might think.

3. Make decisions in advance. Before you get into a situation where you might want to trade something smaller now for something better in the future, make your decision ahead of time.

Here’s an example. I remember in the months before my wife and I got married, we wanted to make a downpayment on a home (#1—what we wanted to do—our goal). We figured out how much we would need and how much we needed to save each week in order to have enough (#2—our plan). Unfortunately, we had nothing to spare in our budget. We determined ahead of time to save what we needed for the downpayment each week no matter what (#3—made a decision in advance). I remember many times when I wanted to buy a candy bar on the way home from work or we wanted to go out to eat, but those things weren’t in our budget. We delayed many short-term goals in order to achieve what we really wanted—the downpayment on the house we would live in our first few years of marriage.

Achieving the Best Time Orientation Mix

Remember that the best mix of time orientation is positive view of the past without concentrating on it, with a focus on the present and a moderately high focus on the future. How can we do that better?

To keep this short, I’ll just list bullet points here.

To lessen an emphasis on the negative past:
Don’t blame yourself
Decide that it is in the past and done, and remind yourself of that when you start to think about the past

To live more in the present (if you think too much about the future):
Do less, not more
Waste time on purpose
Be spontaneous sometimes
Take time enjoy eating, drinking your coffee or tea, listening to music, or reading a good book
Play with children

To be more future oriented:
Wear a watch
Make a habit of delaying gratification
Make a to-do list
Make appointments and stick to them

So, wait for your marshmallows and enjoy the journey!

*Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2013, January 17). Understanding personality for decision-making, longevity, and mental health.

**Laura Michaelson, Alejandro de la Vega, Christopher H. Chatham, Yuko Munakata. Delaying gratification depends on social trust. Frontiers in Psychology, 2013; 4 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00355

Why Wouldn’t You Take Time To Read This?

Buying TimeDo you want to be happier in relationships, more successful in business, and be a better leader? Your attitude towards time has a lot to do with success in those areas.

Benjamin Franklin said that time is money. Actually, time is more important than money.

Here are 3 reasons why time is more important than money:

  • We are willing to give more money for better time. A consultant who receives $400 per hour is better than a consultant who receives $150 per hour. We are willing to give more money for time that is more valuable.
  • We can save money, but not time. You can choose to spend or not spend money; time is spent no matter what at exactly the same rate as everyone in the world.
  • Three of the 5 most commonly used words in the English language (time, person, year, way, day) concern time.

Even though we are technically forced to live only in the present time, we actually deal with the past, the present, and the future at all times in our attitudes and feelings. Scientists have studied this phenomenon a lot, and for more happiness, success in business, and better leadership, the best mixture of past/present/future seems to be:

  • A positive view of the past, but not much attention given to it,
  • A focus on the present, and
  • A moderately high focus on the future.

This attitude of living in the present but having an eye on the future was shown to be important even by young children by the famous marshmallow experiment. If you want to see a video of a modern duplication of the experiment, click here.

The experiment was designed to test the children’s ability to delay gratification. In the experiment, 4-year-olds were placed in a room by themselves and told that they could eat the marshmallow in front of them now, or could wait until later. If they waited, they could have another marshmallow and would have two marshmallows to eat instead of one. Only 1/3 of the children valued delayed gratification enough to receive the reward of the second marshmallow.

When the two groups of children were compared at age 18, the children who waited:

  • had superior emotional and social skills
  • handled stress better
  • were more self-confident, diligent, and self-reliant
  • had higher IQs
  • scored higher in verbal and math skills on the SAT by 210 total points.

I’m out of time for now, so I’ll take my marshmallows and go home. Next time, in Part 2, I’ll talk a bit more about delayed gratification and how to change your time perspective to be more successful in relationships, business, and leadership.

A Category Allegory

Janet- Sized for InternetTry to see if you can put a label on Janet.

Janet was great member of our team a few years ago. She was born in Taiwan and spoke the Fujian dialect of Chinese in her home. At age one, her family moved to Brazil and Portuguese became her first language. When she was 12, she moved to California and started speaking English primarily. Wanting to find some new friends, she started visiting the Chinese-speaking church across the street from her house and learned Mandarin Chinese. She had a passion for teaching and graduated from college with a degree in teaching Spanish. (That’s her 5th language, in case you weren’t counting.)

So, if you wanted to describe Janet in one or two words, how would you do it? Is she a studious Chinese? A laid-back Brazilian? A liberal Californian?

It’s hard, isn’t it?

We are going to look at categories today in the second and last part of this short series on perception in culture. In the first part of this series, we talked about two important facts:

1.) we have too much information coming into our brains, so have to notice only certain things; and

2.) many of the things we do notice are determined by culture.

Why Are Categories Important?

Every time we see something new or meet someone for the fist time, we must put the thing or the person into a category. This has to do with the “too much information problem” we talked about earlier. Categories are one way that our brains help us make sense of the world by making the world a simpler place.

Are Categories Good or Bad?

Are categories good ro bad? The answer is yes and no. Categories can be good (and are absolutely necessary) to help us make sense of the world. They can be bad because they also are the root of prejudice and negative stereotyping.

Whenever we meet someone for the first time, we are forced to put them into a category in order to make sense of the world. Those categories are largely based on our experience. If the new coworker is Korean and we have had good experiences with Koreans in the past, we are very likely to begin the relationship with a positive view. Unfortunately, the reverse is true. If we have had bad experiences with Koreans in the past, even though we have never met the new employee, we very likely will have a negative view of him or her. We can’t help it; we are humans and that is what humans do to deal with the flood of information hitting our brains every moment.

Two Extremely Important Points About Categories

Firm Categories

People tend to either have firmer or looser categories and this distinction is based both on personality and culture. Some people by nature have very firm categories and some cultures also tend to have categories that are fixed and inflexible. In other personality types and cultures, the categories are looser. The firmer the category, the less likely we are to change our opinion and feelings about the new person or experience.

Category Width

In every category there are 3 areas: “good,” “bad,” and not good or bad, just “different.” When psychologists talk about category width, they are talking about how wide the “different” part in the middle of the category is.

Narrow Categories

Practical Help

If you really want to be effective as part of a multicultural team and communicate well in a multicultural environment, you can do 2 important things.

  • Be less firm in your categories. Be open to new ideas and feelings about new people you meet and the actions of others from different cultures. Expand your mind and be open to change.
  • Expand your category width. Try to see fewer things as either “good” or “bad” based on your cultural perspective and increase the middle part—the “just different” part—of your categories.

Not as good:

Narrow Categories




Wide Categories



So, how do you put a label on Janet? The answer is that we can’t. Neither can we put a strict label on anybody. We are all a mixture of cultures and personalities. Expand your categories and your mind and enjoy the beautiful diversity of this beautiful world.

Are You Really Seeing What You Think You Are Seeing?

Click on me for a cool optical illusion

Click on me for a cool optical illusion

Your eyes can fool you!

For one of the coolest optical illusions I have seen, click on the picture then come back here. No matter how many times you watch the short video clip and no matter how sure you are that the cube is the same size on all sides, every time you look at this picture it will fool you.

We’re talking today about perception and how much culture effects what we see and what we think we see.

Too Much Happening At Once

Because our brain is bombarded with information every moment of every day, we must be selective in what we notice (“attend to” to use a more scientific word). By “bombarded” I mean that our brains receive 400 billion (with a “b!”) pieces of information every second.

400 Billion Messages a Second!

How can that be? Think about the fact that you could probably hear dozens of sounds right this minute if you stopped to listen. Add to that the things that go unnoticed by your nose, eyes, and your tongue all times. Simultaneously, every inch of your skin is firing millions of signals to your brain 24/7. You don’t notice the slight taste of your breakfast still stuck between your teeth, the smell of the cologne you put on this morning, and the feel of your shirt touching your back.

You Must Be Selective

The reason you don’t notice these billions of inputs bombarding your brain is because we have to be selective in what we notice in order to survive. We can’t be thinking about our pants touching our leg all day long or we wouldn’t get anything done.

We seem to be “hard-wired” to notice certain things. Movement is one. In an entire room filled with hundreds of still things, a small mouse running across the room will immediately grab our attention. Followed by our screaming and jumping on a chair also grabbing the attention of the folks in the next room.

Faces are another thing we notice. We have all heard stories about people seeing famous people or religious figures in a piece of toast or in the clouds, but actually that is normal and not strange. In some recent research*, Dr. Kang Lee said, “…our findings suggest that it’s common for people to see non-existent (facial) features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.”

Culture Helps Decide What We Notice

In some cultures people pay close attention to the numbers on license plates, and in some cultures it matters very little. Americans will rarely notice the numbers on a license plate, while Arabs usually care much more about it. In China, it is extremely important because some numbers are very lucky and other very unlucky. Rich Chinese people have been known to pay many thousands of dollars to get a “fortunate” license plate.

Does It Matter?

Does it matter what we pay attention to? It matters a lot because in intercultural relations people from different cultures will notice different things and will take away different understandings from the things they pay attention to. Not handling the differences well can lead to distrust and misunderstandings while being a master at it will greatly help your multicultural capability.

Next time, we will meet my friend, Janet, and learn a couple of great ways to not get caught in the cultural perception trap.

*Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee. Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex, 2014; 53: 60 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2014.01.013

Multitaking Part 4: Practical Tips: How To Do It, Do It, Do It, Do It Right

Boy In FlightPerhaps you remember the story from a few years ago. Air traffic control lost contact with Northwest Airlines Flight 188 about halfway through the flight. Just as the US Air Force was scrambling jets to check on the plane, contact was reestablished, but by now the plane was more than 200 kilometers past Minneapolis and was over Wisconsin. The pilots were on their personal computers going over future flying schedules instead of paying attention to their job of flying the plane. The two pilots were fired and lost their flying licenses. Two careers lost to multitasking.

To recap this series, we looked at some interesting facts about multitasking in Part 1, why multitasking can be bad in Part 2, and some good things about multitasking in Part 3.

To finish this series, today I want to suggest some good ways to multitask and then finish this post with a great suggestion for putting all of this together to improve productivity!

Multitask With Low Cognitive Load Tasks

Scott Belsky, in his book, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality” suggests the multitasking is a myth and that sequential tasking is better. He proposes that through good organization, you should move quickly between tasks and projects and concentrate on one task at a time.

Also, as I mentioned in Part 3, it is great to multitask as long as only one task is mentally taxing and the rest are low-cognitive load tasks. It is definitely worth the read if you missed it.

Stop Interruptions

Robert Half International, the prestigious staffing service provider, claims that the average employee only works at about 50% of capacity, much of that due to distractions.

A study* just released this week found that interruptions greatly diminish the quality of work produced by an employee. They said, ”Interruption can cause a noticeable decrement in the quality of work, so it’s important to take steps to reduce the number of external interruptions we encounter daily.”

Some great ideas to stop interruptions:

  • Turn off your cellphone for uninterrupted work periods;
  • Turn off email programs and only check email once every hour or two;
  • If you have an appointment looming, set a timer so you don’t have to be distracted by making sure you don’t miss your appointment;
  • Turn off music with words while working; (Some scientists think music without words is okay and distracts only a little or not at all.)
  • Place a sign on your door to let coworkers know under what circumstances you can be interrupted. It can be like a traffic light. It is okay to interrupt you 1.) freely (green light); 2.) only if it is pretty important (yellow light); or 3.) only in an emergency (red light).


It is almost indisputable that focus is the key to higher levels of quality and quantity of work. Scott Belsky, in his book, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality,” says, “Create windows of nonstimulation. To achieve long-term goals in the age of always-on technology and free-flowing communication, create windows of time dedicated to uninterrupted project focus.”

My post from last year has some great suggestions for this.

For a humorous look at how to focus, watch this wonderful TED Talk from Paolo Cardini.

The following series of questions come from the excellent book, “The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary Keller. He proposes asking, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

These are his focusing questions:

  • For My Spiritual Life: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to help others?”
  • For My Physical Health: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to achieve my diet goals?”
  • For My Personal Life: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my skill at _______?”
  • For My Key Relationships: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my relationship with my spouse?”
  • For My Job: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure that I hit my goals?”
  • For My Business: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make us more competitive?”
  • For My Finances: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to increase my net worth?”


The ironic thing is that more focus also necessitates more rest. I strongly suggest periods of complete focus, followed by short periods of rest to be most efficient at work tasks.

This is backed up by recent research.** This study suggested that short periods of Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing (WILB) actually improved productivity in employees under 30 years old. These activities include YouTube, Facebook, or internet surfing. Yeah! Concentrate on work for a while and then watch a YouTube video!

Putting It All Together

So, to really be productive, we should

  • stop bad multitasking; only one high-cognitive load task at a time
  • do more good multitasking; do low-cognitive load tasks in the background
  • turn off distractions
  • focus
  • rest for short periods between periods of concentrated focus

One interesting method brings these ideas together. Many of you may have heard of something called the “Pomodoro Technique.”

It is a time management plan where you

  • plan what your task is
  • work in a very focused manner for 25 minutes while setting a timer
  • when the timer goes off, you stop and rest for 3-5 minutes
  • set another timer for 25 minutes and focus again
  • after 4 “pomodori” take a 15- to 20-minute break.

There’s even an app for that! See the Vitamin R App if you are interested.

I hope you have enjoyed this series on multitasking and have learned some valuable things. Just in case you were wondering, because of the airline incident I mentioned earlier, the FAA has put some new rules into effect to keep pilots from multitasking while at the controls of an airplane. Good news, don’t you think?

*Cyrus Foroughi et al. Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work? Human Factors, July 2014 DOI:10.1177/0018720814531786

**Brent L. S. Coker. Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing. Human Performance, 2013; 26 (2): 114 DOI:10.1080/08959285.2013.765878

Multitasking Part 3: Good Multitasking: The Good News Is…It Isn’t All Bad

Comic cartoon of a man multitaskingThe 100 Kilometer Error
I was driving with a friend and was really enjoying our conversation. The only problem was that I was too engrossed in our discussion, missed a turn, and didn’t discover my mistake until we had gone 50 km in the wrong direction.

That is the downside of multitasking. Today, in the 3rd installment of this series, I want to talk about the good things about doing multiple activities at one time.

In Part 1, I shared some interesting and surprising facts about multitasking.

In the last post, I mentioned some startling research that shows just how bad multitasking can be.

Today, I want to talk about the good things about multitasking. Next time, I will share some practical tips on how you can increase your productivity and your life by multitasking well.

Research First

While there are dozens, and maybe hundreds, of studies that show the downside of multitasking (for example, a 40% drop in productivity*), at least 2 recent studies have highlighted some positive things about it.

Improved Judgement
Researchers in a study from the University of Basel** found that sometimes the cognitive load that results from multitasking improved performance because it forced the participants to switch cognitive strategies and use a more efficient action plan to solve problems.

Multi-sensory Integration
In another study***, researchers found that participants who were heavy media multitaskers were less distracted by an unexpected sound when trying to complete other tasks. They said, “Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing.”

That is the good news! It should be noted that these are 2 small studies that point to the good effects of multitasking while nearly all of the other research casts a very harsh light on trying to manage several jobs at one time. But, we are highlighting the good in this blog, so rejoice over these 2 studies!

When Multitasking is Good

Despite all of the bad things I have said about it, we should be multitasking.

As I said earlier, in the next post I’ll share many practical tips on effective multitasking, but I want to talk about good multitasking for a moment here.

It actually is a great idea to do several things at once as long as only one of them is important and mentally taxing.

Multitasking is a fantastic way to get many things done simultaneously as long as all but one of them is low-priority and low-cognitive load.

The other day I was answering email (highly cognitive) while I was downloading a computer update (low cognitive), baking a cake in the oven (low cognitive), washing a load of clothes (low cognitive), and had music playing the background (uses a different brain center than writing skills). I have found, personally, that I need to set timers so my clothes don’t sit in the washer after it is finished and my cake isn’t set on fire because I forgot to take it out. I have several timers and often have 3-4 low cognitive tasks on the “back burner” while concentrating on one important task.

One of my favorite forms of multitasking is listening to audiobooks while I exercise. I learn something while I am distracted from the physical pain and drudgery of the exercise. I call that win/win.

As long as you do it right, multitask away!!!

*Rubinstein, Joshua S.; Meyer, David E.; Evans, Jeffrey E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

**J. A. Hoffmann, B. von Helversen, J. Rieskamp. Deliberation’s Blindsight: How Cognitive Load Can Improve Judgments. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612463581

***Kelvin F. H. Lui, Alan C.-N. Wong. Does media multitasking always hurt? A positive correlation between multitasking and multisensory integration. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2012; DOI: 10.3758/s13423-012-0245-7

Multitasking Part 2: Bad Multitasking: Those Who Shouldn’t, Do It the Most

One Man copyI can picture the scene in my head to this day. I was in a meeting in Asia several years ago and a colleague in the meeting was participating in the discussion while writing email and reading the open book on his lap. I was impressed!

But should I have been?

In my previous post I shared some interesting facts about multitasking. If you haven’t read it yet, plead go read it now and come back.

This post will concentrate on the downside of multitasking. There is so much research coming out lately, pointing to the fact that it is just not good for us. I will highlight a few of the more interesting and insightful studies.

Why Most People Multitask

The latest research indicates that there are four main reasons why the heaviest multitaskers do so.

  • They have a lack of restraint or self-discipline. People who are more impulsive and are more sensation-seeking tend to participate in it the most.
  • They are easily distracted. Researchers found that the heaviest multitaskers did do several things at once to get more done, but because they were not able to block out distractions and focus on one task at a time. They were, in fact, really bad at doing several things at once even though they tended to do it the most.
  • They are overconfident of their ability to multitask. Even though the heaviest multitaskers scored lower on multitasking measurement tests, they scored themselves significantly higher in their ability than they actually were.
  • They wanted to impress other people. One of the other main reasons cited for multitasking was because they had observed others doing it, were impressed, and wanted to impress others.

As one researcher* stated, “We showed that people who multitask the most are those who appear to be the least capable of multitasking effectively.”

In another study out of Stanford**, researchers expected that heavy multitaskers would be better than average on three skills important to effective multitasking—filtering information, switching between tasks effectively, and keeping a high working memory. They were shocked to find that the heaviest multitaskers were the worst at all three tasks. They said, “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

Even worse, the these participants felt great about their achievements and believed they were getting more accomplished, even though they scored worse than those who were singletasking. Professor David Strayer, adds, “The people who are most likely to multitask harbor the illusion they are better than average at it, when in fact they are no better than average and often worse.”

The Real Irony With Those Who Multitask Less

Meanwhile, the people who really are good at multitasking seem to be the ones who do it less.

Two things were true about the 25% of people who scored highest on the multitasking tests:

  • They spent less time doing it
  • They were better at it

About the only bright spot in all of this is that the Stanford study found that since music is processed in a different part of the brain than other tasks, it seems to be okay to listen to music while doing something else.

Enough of the bad news! In my next post, I will share the good news about how multitasking can be good. See you then!

*David M. Sanbonmatsu, David L. Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward, Jason M. Watson. Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (1): e54402 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

**Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, Anthony D. Wagner. Cognitive control in media multitaskers.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; September 15, 2009.

Multitasking Part 1: Are You Really As Good As You Think You Are?

Young woman driving , applying lipstick and speaking on her smart phoneTrue story: A friend hit a mailbox. She couldn’t understand why, but she said she was driving a car while putting on makeup, eating breakfast, and talking on the phone at the same time.

It seems that all of us are multitasking these days and the younger generations have seemingly built their lives on perfecting the fine art of multitasking.

Is it good? Is it bad? The answer is “Yes! Multitasking is both good and bad.”

This is the first part of a 4-part series on multitasking. I think you will find this series to  be very interesting and extremely helpful. Here is the plan:

Part 1: What Multitasking Is and Some Interesting Facts About It

Part 2: Bad Multitasking: Those Who Shouldn’t Multitask, Do It the Most

Part 3: Good Multitasking: The Good News Is, Multitasking Isn’t All Bad

Part 4: Practical Tips: How To Do It, Do It, Do It Right

A Computer and Your Brain

The term “multitasking” first was coined in the 1960’s to describe when multiple tasks were being performed by one CPU (computer brain). The word eventually also came to be used to describe when a person was performing multiple tasks at one time. It is a bit of a misconception, however, because neither a CPU nor your brain can actually do more than one thing at a time.

Then why does it seem like we can multitask? Like a computer, our brains are capable of performing multiple tasks so quickly in succession it seems they are being performed at the same time. The big difference between the human brain and the computer CPU is that a computer is very good at handling the “shut off” and “start up” procedures necessary to switch back and forth between two or more tasks. Our brains are really not very good at it. (More interesting scientific facts about this in Part 2.)

“Multitasking is a lie because nearly everyone accepts it as an effective thing to do, but when you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or won’t do either well. Multitasking is an effective way to get less done.” (Gary Keller in his book, “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” -emphasis mine.)

Multitasking Is Killing Us

We are literally dying from multitasking—one fast way, and one slow way.

The fast way to a multitasking death—multitasking while driving a car.
Here are the facts:

  • Texting while driving makes a driver 23x more likely to crash.
  • Drivers talking on a cell phone are 4x more likely to have a car accident.
  • In 2012 in the USA, 3,328 people were killed in distraction-related crashes.
  • In 2012 in the USA, almost half a million people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.

The slow way to a multitasking death— higher tension, blood pressure, and stress from multitasking.

“There is data to show that multitasking leads to more distractibility and poor concentration…When we’re in speed mode, we have to be more on edge and alert, which naturally creates tension and agitance…We also would do well to place limits on the times during which we multitask.” (Marc Schoen in his book, “Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century.”)

Some Interesting Facts About Multitasking

Multitasking Is Killing Productivity
While at work, the average American:

  • checks email more than 11 times a day
  • open their inbox every 20 minutes
  • took 15 minutes to return to their previous task after checking email

Because of this, some scientists estimate that the average American focuses on one task only about 15 minutes per hour.

Women Really Are Better At Multitasking!
Some recent researchers* have found that under certain conditions the old adage really is true: women really are better at multitasking than men.

Well, I’m don writing this article, so it’s time for me to turn off my music, shut down my email, and quit texting. I think I need to read my next post about why, when, and where we shouldn’t multitask! Stay tuned.

*Gijsbert Stoet, Daryl B O’Connor, Mark Conner and Keith R Laws. Are women better than men at multitasking? BMC Psychology, October 2013

Ouch! That Hurts When You Try to Be Kind

disillusioned young violinistWe’ve all seen it: the doting parents praising their child after a performance that everyone else in the room knows was terrible.

The problem is that in an attempt to be loving and kind, they are actually hurting their child.

The same thing can happen at work when supervisors fail to give honest, and sometimes difficult, feedback to their coworkers.

Some Important New Insights From Research

A new study* published in April 2014 helps explain why people sometimes think they are good at something when actually they are not good at all.

First, let me mention why this study is so important. It is important because of the huge amount of data used for the study. The authors used a meta-synthesis statistical technique with data from many other studies. This allowed them to look at results from over a quarter of a million participants. That is a mega-number for research!

Second, let me mention what it tells us. One of the main reasons why we are self-deceived about our abilities and think that we can do better at something than we really can is because we don’t have good self-insight. Many times, the lack of self-insight is a direct result of people getting vague feedback from family, friends, and employers.

Let’s be clear: self-esteem rarely, if ever, leads to greater performance. Yet in an effort to be kind and build self-esteem, we give vague, often overly generous feedback to our friends and co-workers. “You did a good job,” is too fuzzy to do anyone any good.

What improves performance is accurate and specific feedback and a concerted effort to improve. For more on the difference between the lie, “practice makes perfect” and the truth “perfect practice makes perfect” click here.

Think back to your best teachers in school. You know, the ones that pushed you to excel. They often were not the kindest or even the gentlest, but they were the ones who were honest and pushed you to constant improvement. They told you exactly what you were doing wrong and how to fix it.

One of the researchers (Krizan) said, “If people are evaluating themselves in terms of very specific criteria, they’re going to have better self-insight because they are constrained by how to interpret the ability.”

What Should We Do?

On the receiving feedback side: push those around you to greater honesty and specifics when they are giving you feedback.

Drill down deeper if they say you did “well.” What was good about it? How could if be better?

On the giving feedback side: Be brutally honest (with kindness!) and very specific when you give feedback. Tell your friends, family, and coworkers exactly what was good and what was bad.

They will thank you for it in the end.

*E. Zell, Z. Krizan. Do People Have Insight Into Their Abilities? A Metasynthesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2014; 9 (2): 111 DOI: 10.1177/1745691613518075