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January 29, 2013

Why Multitasking May Fail Us

What church leaders should note from new research.




By their nature, church offices present numerous temptations to multitask.

For pastors, there are unexpected office visits and phone calls, budget reports, and board meeting preparations, all on top of sermon writing, long-range planning, crisis resolutions, the occasional emergency--and so on. For executive pastors, business administrators, and church office staff, there are similar circumstances to these, plus dozens more.

But in juggling all of this, particularly through the use of desktops, laptops, phones, mobile phones, tablets, and more, the question increasingly becomes, Does multitasking make us better at our work--or worse?

While the answer may not surprise you, the disparity between what people perceive and what their realities show may surprise you.

Lisa Marshall, a former newspaper colleague of mine, recently wrote about this for Colorado Public Television. In her article, "The Latest Study on Multitasking is One to Focus On ... Hey, Eyes Over Here," she shares some surprising new research about multitasking and gadgets from the University of Utah:

For the study ... in the journal PLOS One, [David] Strayer and his colleagues ran 310 psych undergrads through a battery of memory and math tests aimed at determining just how good at multitasking they really are. Then they asked them how good they think they are. Then they asked them how often they do it.
As it turns out, most everyone thinks they are a good multi-tasker (70 percent pegged themselves as above average). But oddly, those who spend the most time simultaneously texting/talking and driving or using multiple gadgets scored the worst on the multi-tasking tests. Meanwhile, the 25 percent who scored the best were the ones least likely to multitask. (Of note: People who scored high on sensation-seeking and impulsivity tests also tended to be chronic multi-taskers.)

Later in her piece, Marshall makes this insightful observation:

Previous studies from Stanford [University] also show that chronic multi-taskers tend to have worse memories, take longer to switch back and forth between tasks, and have a harder time getting their bearings once they land back on task one. As Professor Clifford Nass puts it, we become “suckers for irrelevancy.” We are so used to being distracted, that no task is sacred anymore, and everything distracts us.

Every day in church offices, tasks, requests, emergencies, demands, and deadlines undoubtedly compete for attention. But if the default response the past couple of years has been to figure out how much to squeeze in to every moment, and what work can be done simultaneously alongside other work as much as possible, this may be the right time to question the results.

Is the work better? Completed well and on time? Or just completed? Or still not completed because other tasks surfaced and leeched away our energy and attention?

Some of you likely will say you don't often love the outcomes of multitasking, but you have little choice. Nevertheless, it's still worth close examination. And it's worth conversation with those you report to, those you co-labor with, and those who come to you with requests on a regular basis.

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for me," the Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:23, "since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving."

Multitasking may keep us busy. It may make us feel like we're serving well. But in the end, we very well may be too distracted, the sacredness of each work task lost in the shuffle.

To go deeper on this topic, check out Managing Stress for Church Leaders, a downloadable resource from ChurchSafety.com.

Matt Branaugh is director of editorial for Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax Group.

Related Tags: administration, administrative assistants, administrative pastors, business administrators, church office, employees, executive pastors, human resources, management, ministers, office, outreach, pastors, staff, stress, teamwork, volunteers, worship pastors

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