Multi-tasking and empathy

It’s not a new concept that multi-tasking is really just task-switching, and that it’s incredibly inefficient (we lose time switching between tasks as our brains catch up to the task at hand …every single time we switch back and forth.). There is no such thing as “being a good multi-tasker.”

Scrum trainer Roger Brown illustrates the inefficiencies of task switching in this 2010 piece, in the context of explaining how using the scrum framework can save organizations time and money.

If everyone on the team is working on three projects concurrently, all three projects will finish at the same time:

But if everyone on the team focuses on one project at a time, the first project finishes at week 7 instead of week 20 in this example, where we haven’t begun to account for “team synergies” as Brown puts it:

And it’s not news, either, that working closely with a team comprised of individuals from across multiple disciplines can increase ability to problem-solve and offer multiple perspectives.

Here’s the pretty remarkable new information: there’s a study linking multitasking with a decrease in empathy. This FastCompany piece — a larger discussion of the costs of multi-tasking — references a study that links multi-tasking with a decrease in density in the areas of the brain controlling emotions and empathy. Correlation is not causation, but it still gives me pause, and at the same time, seems really obvious: when we’re multi-tasking, we’re not fully present. We haven’t committed to the task at hand, whether it’s a solo task or a conversation with a human. We aren’t getting any better at empathy if we’re not practicing it, and we’re not practicing it if we’re not really here.


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