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Intel experiments with mindfulness to combat digital overload

To combat the negative effects of multitasking, a handful of Intel employees took matters into their own hands and introduced a mindful awareness program.

The pace of business is accelerating rapidly, but the rate of employee engagement isn't following suit. In Gallup's 2013 State of the American Workplace, the consulting company reported that "52% of workers are not engaged, and worse, another 18% are actively disengaged" -- and not in a benign way. The study described employees as "busy acting out their unhappiness" and undermining "what engaged co-workers accomplish."

In the last five years, the percentages have fluctuated only slightly, to the detriment of the U.S. economy. The consulting company estimates that this "active disengagement" costs U. S. businesses between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity each year. Rather than blame employees for their apathy on the job, however, Gallup suggests employers lay off the workplace efficiencies for a minute and think about their employees' mental health. "Make well-being an organizational strategy."

A handful of employees at Intel Corp. is taking statistics like these to heart. Two years ago, they rolled out a program to help colleagues manage the digital barrage that is part and parcel of every workday: hundreds upon hundreds of emails per day, instant messages that must be attended to. Nowhere in the Intel program, however, are there any lessons in improving organizational or multitasking skills. Instead, Intel's mindful awareness program, as it's called, is designed to develop things like better focus, emotional intelligence and stress management.

More California New Age palaver? The chip maker isn't alone. Leaders at businesses ranging from insurance giant Aetna to retailer Eileen Fisher to Twitter to hospitals, schools and the military are introducing meditation, yoga and so-called self-hacking practices to encourage employees to cope with the fast-moving, always-on workplace.

Sometimes the practices are involved, such as Intel's eight-week mindful awareness program. Sometimes, they're very simple. When Peter Deng, product director at Instagram, moved to a new part of the Facebook office, he found himself having to book meetings in the U Mad Bro conference room, named after an Internet meme. "That's not the space I wanted to create," he said during a presentation at the Wisdom 2.0 conference. So, he changed the room's name to This Moment. "This is incredibly cheesy, I know, but I love it," he told the audience. "It's a little reminder to myself to be in this moment."

The ultimate benefit to a company, however, is not a blissed-out workforce. According to the Gallup report, "employers who invest in engaging their workers and improving these employees' well-being have a distinct competitive advantage."

Integrative vs. non-integrative multitasking

In the 1990s and early 2000s, multitasking used to find its way into the coveted skills section of resumes; but today, with the proliferation of mobile devices, multitasking is just part of the daily drudgery, required but the less said about this scourge of the modern workplace, the better.

Qua VedaQua Veda

Qua Veda, a market research analyst at Intel and co-founder of the company's mindful awareness program, said he has seen firsthand the results of multitasking taken to the extreme. "People are driven to multitask by the sheer volume of the workload," he said. Assignments pile up, meetings pile up, objectives pile up and multitasking seems like a solution, but "it starts to drive a person into that distraction mode."

Other workplace experts have also documented the relationship between multitasking and distraction, including Clifford I. Nass, a Stanford University communications professor who died in 2013, and the author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop. He examined the effects of heavy media multitasking, for example, switching between instant messaging, email, Twitter, Facebook -- all while listening to music through earbuds. "The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking," he told NPR's Science Friday in a May 2013 interview.

People who participate in heavy media multitasking, Nass said, "can't filter out irrelevancy; they can't manage a working memory; they're chronically distracted; they initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand."

Nass differentiated between integrated tasks, which share a common goal, such as the necessary research and interviews for writing a report, or nonintegrated tasks, which share no such relationship, such as preparing for a meeting and updating your relationship status on Facebook. It's the nonintegrated tasks -- the shift from IM to email to writing code and back again -- that pose the most risk. "It's extremely healthy for your brain to do integrative things," he said. "It's extremely destructive for your brain to do nonintegrative things."

In the second part of this SearchCIO two-part feature, find out how Nass instituted a new mindful awareness program with the intent to combat multitasking at Intel.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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Is multitasking just a waste of time?
I think the answer differs for different people - I know some people who work very well while having a lot of tabs open at once, while others get overwhelmed with more than a couple of tasks. I do agree, though, that sometimes multitasking can lead to none of the projects getting done in a timely fashion.