Distractions at work are damaging as they increase cognitive load on executives and reduce working memory capacity for the focal tasks that they are working on (Baddeley, 1992; Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Multitasking poses a major challenge in modern work environments by putting the worker under cognitive load. However, distractions per se may not always hurt performance.
In the findings of researchers Janina Hoffman, Bettina von Helversen, and Jörg Rieskamp from the University of Basel, executives will make judgments with greater accuracy if they do tasks under the same memory load. The problems behind such distractions happen if they switch from a higher load to a lower, less demanding load and this switch causes them to be unable to perform at the same level of intensity and focus when they return to the higher load function. The original article can be found at Psychological Science 24(6) 869–879.
The greater the similarity in terms of cognitive load, the more accurate the judgments. In short, if you want to be demanding, be demanding all the way even in distractions which will improve the accuracy of your judgments. This gives us some insights as to how we ought to structure our “multi-tasking” activities. Load the demanding ones alongside each other, not tasks with diametrically-opposite cognitive load demand.
As with the term “true multi-tasking” suggests, the distracting activity has to place similar demands on our cognitive load so that the processing power of our mind continues to function at the same level of engagement. Otherwise, any drop in demand will signal to the brain to reduce cognitive processing power and when you return to the same high-demand task again, you are likely to have a greater propensity towards an inaccurate judgment.
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