Illustration by Scotty Reifsnyder
In the past, businesses were made up of workers who dedicated their time to a singular task. However, thanks to technological advancements, employees are now expected to handle a larger and more varied to-do list with even tighter deadlines.
In an effort to keep up, many workers turn to multitasking, like finishing up a report while responding to urgent emails from a boss. While this might seem like a good solution in the short term—helping to stay on top of things—it could hurt in the long run, according to Ravi S. Kudesia, assistant professor of human resource management at the Fox School.
Multitasking requires a certain level of self-regulation, the process by which people monitor and address their thoughts, feelings and distractions while aiming to stay on track and complete a particular task.
“Self-regulation is this process that speaks to the question, ‘How do I want to allocate these resources?’ And some of it could be things like, ‘I’ve noticed that my mind has drifted off and I need to bring it back to the task.’ It could also be, you’re working on something, and it’s super frustrating, and you have to deal with those emotions,” Kudesia says. “Self-regulation is one of the most costly things we can do in terms of cognitive resources.”
Self-regulation eats up a lot of cognitive resources, which Kudesia describes as “information processing capacity.”
“One way you can imagine the way the brain works is that you have certain abilities to process information and run tasks. The core idea of cognitive resources is that there’s a limited pool of resources that you have and that you can allocate,” Kudesia says. “It’s not like you can do a million things at once. The limitation isn’t always the body; a lot of the time, it’s the mind.”
Some people have the brainpower to spare, making multitasking easy. But for others, it can be more difficult and could lead to burnout.
In an ideal world, one obvious solution is for a person to cut back on how much is put on their plate. However, for many, this is not always an option. As technology forces us to stay “wired in” to work and school at all hours, multitasking becomes unavoidable. Thus, Kudesia uncovered an alternative solution: mindfulness.
His study, published in the Journal of Management, found that mindfulness training can help mitigate the mental fatigue many people feel from multitasking. Some examples of training subjects partook in were body scans, where a subject takes account of their body’s feelings, and breath meditation, where a subject simply focuses all their attention on following the pattern of their breathing. After these sessions, they reported feeling less mentally drained than those who did not receive the training.
The reason? Mindfulness helps us practice self-regulation and get better at it, something we rarely have a chance to do.
“A big part of it is that we never really practice self-regulation. You take a driving class and that makes you better at driving, but you never take a self-regulation class that makes you better at self-regulation. So that’s kind of the dilemma, that self-regulation is very resource-consuming, and part of the reason is that it’s not well-practiced,” Kudesia says. “Mindfulness is that form of self-regulation practice that makes it less demanding. Just like anything that you do, when you practice it, it becomes easier.”
Many think of mindfulness as an individual skill or cognitive practice to help with stress reduction. Over time, the concept has evolved into what Kudesia considers a metacognitive practice that isn’t necessarily a “skill.” Instead, it involves taking a step back, adjusting your cognition based on the situation at hand and being intentional about your allocation of resources. So mindfulness has to be considered in light of the situations being faced in organizations.
Kudesia emphasizes that while mindfulness training can be a helpful tool for those who want to get a better handle of their own feelings of mental fatigue, he urges managers and businesses to turn to solutions that address the overarching issues that this fatigue stems from.
“It gets a lot more thorny when organizations instantiate it,” he says. “So maybe one of the things the organization could do is reduce the number of stressors instead of training people to better cope with stressors.”