Multi-tasking and workplace distractions don’t allow us to focus on the essentials

Although the structure of our brains is largely the same as that of our hunter-gatherer prehistoric ancestors, that does not mean they are immutable. Research shows that the way our brains change in response to technology and the changing workplace suggests they are subject to a certain degree of ‘rewiring’. For example, a recent study found that the emotional response of adults to smileys in emails and texts is exactly the same as they would have to real faces. Tellingly, however, this appears to be learned behaviour because babies do not exhibit the same response. One other aspect of working life that is now proven to change the way our brains work – and not in a good way – is multitasking. Research published by Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai of the University of Sussex found that “Individuals who engage in heavier media-multitasking are found to perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties”.

While the researchers think we need to understand more about the causal relationship between a lack of grey matter in certain areas of the brain and a propensity to multi-task, this might be particularly bad news for the much talked about digital natives of Generation Y (and others similarly immersed in technology) who may pride themselves on their ability to multi-task and absorb from a wide range of information sources but may not be aware of just how much they may be losing out on their ability to focus and interact and empathise with others.

We’ve been aware of some of the problems associated with multi-tasking for some time, not least because it is so closely associated with the way we tick. When we are working on a specific task, the information we need is held in our short term memory. Researchers estimate that this can hold on to only four to seven pieces of information at any one time. Focus allows us to transfer valuable information from our short term memory to long term memory and to think about it and process it properly.

This key skill is often at odds with our working environment. There have always been distractions in our surroundings but never as profoundly as right now. Not only are we disturbed by colleagues and their associated visual and acoustic distractions but also by the technological environment and a common belief that we should be able to multitask. In fact, researchers such as Clifford Nass at Stanford University have discovered that people who multitask become less able to do it the more they try.

Multitasking and distractions are detrimental to sophisticated thought processes such as learning. The brain doesn’t really multitask, it switches from one thing to another making us less able to process either. This is OK for some activities but for others, which benefit from our undivided attention, it can be fatal.

This is an innate feature of our neural makeup. It’s not something that can be unlearned so that we are able to perform multiple tasks or process information simultaneously to the same standard we would do if we were paying full attention. Just because Generation Y consists of digital natives doesn’t make them superhuman and nor is it true for previous generations who are similarly immersed in a technological environment replete with distractions.

How we process information, understand it and use it to generate new ideas is consistent across the generations. It is predominantly the environment that has changed, not the person within it. But the environment is getting us into bad habits and changing the way we act and think. For example, research shows that we remember things far better when we repeatedly recall information from our own memories rather than relying on Google, Wikipedia, a hard drive, The Cloud or an Intranet to act as a surrogate memory, which is what we increasingly do.

There is no doubt that the things that distract us most – our colleagues and our devices – can be invaluable in helping us to be more productive and do things in new ways in the workplace. But they can also be counter-productive. The challenge is to remember the person at the centre of it all, with all of their limitations, motivations and abilities and design spaces that allow them to make the best of the times they need distractions and the times they need to remain focussed on just one thing at a time.


Charles Marks is the Managing Director of office design and fit-out company Fresh.