Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Time pressure – the best condition for successful multi-tasking?

For many of our readers their working day is likely to be characterised by a variety of tasks, ranging from various projects they are running at the same time to meetings, phone calls, travel planning, and so on. We hardly ever have the time to finish one task before switching to the next one, and this makes staying focused on the task at hand very difficult. Time pressure is another factor many of us face. How can we maintain optimal focus and thus be as efficient as possible under these circumstances?

A study by Sophie Leroy from the University of Minnesota sheds light onto this question. In her first experiment, she had students perform two subsequent tasks, first a riddle with words and then a CV evaluation task. In the first task, she manipulated closure of the task by making it either possible or impossible to complete it within the time given and time pressure by either telling participants it would be possible or it would not be possible to finish the task within the time given. Before starting the second task, participants completed a short lexical decision task that made it possible to detect to what extent their thoughts were still lingering with the first task. Afterwards, they completed the second task. Sophie Leroy found that those who had completed the first task under time pressure were better able to disengage from the first task and focus their attention on the second one than those who had completed the task without time pressure or not completed it.

In a second experiment, she used the same research design, but then looked at participants’ performance on the second task. She found that those who had completed the first task under time pressure performed best on the second task, compared to those who had not finished the task or who had finished it without time pressure.

The original article was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

There is an outline of the study on the BPS Research Digest.

What does this mean for our work? It is a fact that we usually have many projects and tasks running at the same time, and it is almost impossible to change this. Moreover, time pressure is often there. However, many of our projects require our full attention and we have to make sure that our thoughts stop lingering with previous tasks, otherwise we are not as efficient and thorough as we might have to be. From the experiments described it seems to be important to finish one task before starting the next one, but another factor that is key to being able to focus on the subsequent task seems to be time pressure.

What we also need to keep in mind is that interrupting a task before it is finished, switching to another one and then switching back to the initial task comes at a cost. We need to remember where we stopped and get back into the initial task. We reported on this in an earlier post.

Thus, a good way of working efficiently on several tasks might be to set ourselves a challenging, but realistic timeframe for a task (or a subtask) so that we are able to finish it, but need to speed up, and then switch our full attention to the subsequent task.

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