• Article


Multitasking destroys a meeting – here’s why

Researchers have established that those who multitask a lot are better at switching between different tasks, because they do it regularly (practice). However they do the task less well than those who are not distracted by irrelevant information.1

When you multitask, you’re try to do two things at once, like listening to what is being said in a video conference and replying to a text message.

  • Everyone – young and old – performs less well when multitasking. Your personal efficiency can drop by a whole 40 percent.2
  • Women and people over 40 are more distracted than others by people who can’t leave their mobile phones alone. Since your working memory can only do one thing at a time, those who multitask miss what is being said and shown at the meeting. They therefore have to ask about things they should already know and they make more mistakes, because they’re not on top of the situation. This applies to both younger and older people.
  • The opposition to distracting influences increases, the more you earn.3

We may be able to do two things at once in two thousand years’ time

It is easy to leave a video conference mentally. All it takes is the press of a button, to use a well worn expression. If you multitask, switching between the meeting and your own little excursions, your personal efficiency can drop by 40 percent.

One explanation for this is that a human’s working memory only has space for 7 ± 2 units. It has been said that it has space for a telephone number – but not the dialing code. And last but not least – it can only do one thing at a time. Researchers claim that we may be able to do two things at once in two thousand years’ time. But more about that later.

This means that when you’re messaging, emailing, surfing, reading the news or shopping, you can’t be present at the meeting. We have all seen a multitasker being asked a question and looking up absently when they notice things have gone quiet and they don’t know what is happening. That is how our brains are programmed and it is true of all ages. Younger people didn’t take some evolutionary leap forward when IT broke through, as many think.  

If the person leading the meeting is multitasking, everyone else will think they can do so also. And when it is seen as OK to multitask, the chances of achieving the goal of the meeting shrink. 

Your consciousness contains your thoughts right now

Your consciousness and working memory collaborate intensively and they largely use the same areas of the brain. 

  • Your consciousness contains your thoughts right now. 
  • Your working memory stores and processes information.

You don’t notice the brain’s division of labor, because we can shift our consciousness at lightning speed. Someone moves quickly some way off and you check who it is. An email comes in. You feel your foot in your shoe. You can smell coffee. You wonder what you’re going to do this evening.

  1. Because you can only do one thing at a time consciously, when you quickly check on something during the meeting, that information lodges in your consciousness and sparks all sorts of thoughts and unconscious processes.
  2. When you are present in the meeting, that is the information that lodges in the brain and sparks different thoughts and several important processes. Examples: The long-term memory can search out relevant information for you to use in the meeting. You become more creative, because your memories are the raw material for creativity. You come up with ideas by combining different memories that you hold in your long-term memory. Our memories are creativity’s raw material,4  according to researchers. 

Added to this is the information you’re not aware of, that cannot be programmed into the long-term memory. This means you’re not aware of everything you need to know to do your best.

How to create more effective video conferences

  • Discuss what rules will apply in order to make you productive, creative and so on. Write them down and share them.
  • As meeting leader, you can engage people by asking everyone questions with the help of a list. Constantly ask them for comments and suggestions.
  • It is common these days for people who work in the same office to remain at their workstations for a video conference. If you choose to sit together in a meeting room instead – and connect with the others from there – it is easier for the meeting leader to keep track of what is happening and as a bonus effect it reduces the temptation to check your mobile phone every four minutes. Yes, that is how often the average user checks their phone. People over 50 generally only check their phone a few times an hour.
  • Choose a quiet room if you’re working from home and are taking part in a meeting.
1 Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows, 24 Aug 2009. news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html
2 Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65. And Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997b). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 2. Accounts of psychological refractory-period phenomena. Psychological Review, 104, 749-791.
3 Travis Bradberry, Why Successful People Never Bring Smartphones into Meetings, in TalentSmart. www.talentsmart.com/articles/Why-Successful-People-Never-Bring- Smartphones-into-Meetings-2102500907-p-1.html
4 Pontus Wasling, neuroscience researcher, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Så blir du kreativ (How to be creative), in Dagens Media, 1/2015.

The sections in the text about the brain that don’t have any footnotes are from the book “Din hjärna från 2008 är effektivare än den du har idag. Så kan du återställa den” (Your brain from 2008 is more effective than the one you have today. How to reset it) by Tomas Dalström.

Related products