Stop Multitasking: it Makes you Dumber (and 4 Ways to Improve)

Productivity for leaders demands wise time management. But will multi-tasking make us better time managers? This study says no. A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis. While this fact might make an interesting dinner party topic, it’s really not that amusing that one of the most common “productivity tools” can make one as dumb as a stoner. (David Rock, Your Brain at Work, p. 36) If you get sucked into multitasking, consider these 4 ways to fight against the tendency.

close up hands multitasking man using  laptop  connecting wifi

Many leaders, including me, have too often convinced themselves that multi-tasking leads to better time management. Actually, it doesn’t. Researchers have shown that when we try to do two mental tasks at once, our cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight year old (Rock, p. 34).

Although we technically can do two tasks at once, it dramatically slows our mental processing. So, if you think you are saving time by multi-tasking, you really aren’t. Neuroscientists call this dual-task interference. Because the high level thinking part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) works in a serial fashion, one item at a time, when we multi-task we clog up its processing speed and actually reduce our effectiveness.

Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft captured the essence in the term continuous partial attention. She describes it this way. “To pay continuous partial attention is to keep a top-level item in focus, and constantly scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.” As a result, this “always on” mode puts our brains on constant alert, thus flooding them with too much stress hormone which slows processing.

So what can we do to moderate this tendency?

  1. Imbed repetitive tasks deep into our long term memory so we that we can actually do them without thinking. An example is driving. We don’t really think about driving because we’ve done it long enough to make it a habit. Such habits don’t require the executive functions of our brains. Rather, they are stored into the part of our brain that stores routine functions, the basal ganglia.
  2. Prioritize your tasks for the day. Every day take a few minutes to plan your day so that you do the most mentally taxing things first. This appointment with the executive center of our brains assures we do our best thinking for what demands it.
  3. Turn off notifications on your computer or mobile device. I thought in my iPad and iPhone all I had to do was to keep an app out of Notifications. I just realized that I have to go into settings and turn off notifications in each app. When I read, I hated getting the reminders at the top of the screen which interrupted my train of thought. I no longer get them.
  4. Determine when you will attend to those tasks that interrupted you. When I write or study, I turn off email. But every hour or so when I take a break, I will turn it on and quickly look at email and respond to those that I can in the moment. That way I can focus on that which requires my mental energy and check off those less demanding tasks at those scheduled times .

How do you handle the multi-tasking monster?

My latest book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry, provides practical insight from brain insight on many areas of leadership.

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4 Insights about Leadership I Learned from a Bunch of Creatives

I’m a writer and a pastor. To improve my writing and book marketing skills, I joined a coaching group led by one of the smartest book marketing dudes anywhere, Chadwick Cannon. This past weekend I attended an intense 1-day session on book marketing in Nashville, Tennessee. It was an amazing day with eight bright and talented creatives. Our focus was not on leadership. Nevertheless, I came away not only with a head full of ideas on book marketing but a few insights on leadership as well.

Multi-Ethnic Group of People Planning Ideas

4 leadership insights I learned from creatives:

  1. Good leaders must learn from those outside the ‘leadership’ field.
    • I was the only pastor in the group although one guy was a former pastor. Our group included a wide range of people: one woman was called to serve the homeless, another had owned an art gallery, one was facing terminal cancer, another was in accounting, one had a special needs child with a rare disease, etc., etc. This eclectic group reminded me that God has given us all certain life experiences for His glory and our benefit. I learned insights from each of these incredible people that I took away to apply in my role as a pastor.
  2. Leaders must avoid getting ‘leadership tunnel vision’ (a close cousin to number 1 above)
    • Leadership tunnel vision happens when we only expose ourselves to leadership ‘stuff.’ We read leadership books, go to leadership conferences, and mostly keep our minds in the leadership ‘headspace.’ This weekend took me out of a formal leadership ‘headspace.’ As I heard their stories and learned how to sell books, it reminded me how easily I can slip into leadership tunnel vision and that I must periodically step out of that space to learn fresh ideas.
  3. Creatives provide great examples of self-leadership.
    • Writing is a lonely business. For an author to have written a book means that she has disciplined herself to say no to other time demands so that she can focus on writing. It takes great self-leadership to say yes to the solitude writing requires. Good leaders can’t lead churches or businesses or ministries without leading themselves. A productive creative understands self-leadership.
  4. Feedback from creatives provides a helpful window to help leaders lead better.
    • As part of our session together, we shared our book marketing plans, book benefit statements, and our tag-lines for our books. After we presented, the group gave feedback. The feedback they gave me was invaluable. Their creative perspectives gave me a fresh evaluative window that I seldom get. ‘Leadership tunnel vision’ can sometimes inadvertently exclude input we need to hear from those not in the leadership space. I came away tired, but full not only of marketing ideas, but challenged to be a better leader through their unique feedback.

If you’re a leader, consider this suggestion. Get to know some creatives in or outside your church or ministry. Spend time learning about what they do and how they do it. Ask them about what it’s like being a painter or a sculptor or a musician or a writer. You’ll probably come away with some new insight about how you can be a better leader that you probably won’t get from other leaders.

Who is a creative in your circle of relationships that you could learn from?

Mr. Rogers’ Advice to Discouraged Pastors

Do the Best You Can and Leave the Results to God… That phrase may seem trite and a bit worn to discouraged pastors, but it’s filled with truth. In Christ’s parable of the talents, the master, representing God, gave responsibility to the servants, us, based on individual ability.[1] The story implies that some pastors have greater competencies and gifts than others. Similarly, Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit gives out gifts as He sees fit.[2] It’s obvious that the Spirit gives some pastors extra preaching or leading gifts, evidenced in the size and impact of their ministries. And when we don’t measure up or our church is not growing and we face discouragement, what can we do?

do your best words on post-it over brown background

It’s easy to become discouraged when we do our best yet don’t see our church grow like others against which we or others may compare ourselves. When we wrap our identities around numerical results and the numbers don’t increase, the discouragement can overwhelm. This is especially true for older pastors who realize they may never achieve the dreams they had for ministry.

Author David Goetz wrote,

I often sat in the studies of both small-church pastors and mega-church pastors, listening to their stories, their hopes, their plans for significance. I deduced, albeit unscientifically, that often clergymen in midlife had worse crises of limits than did other professionals. Religious professionals went into the ministry for the significance, to make an impact, called by God to make a difference with their lives. But when you’re fifty-three and serving a congregation of 250, you know, finally, you’ll never achieve the large-church immortality symbol, the glory that was promised to you. That can be a dark moment—or a dark couple of years.[3]

In contrast to these struggles, the late theologian Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers fame) recalled an experience he had when attending seminary. He wanted to hear a variety of preachers, so for a time each Sunday he visited different churches. One week he experienced “the most poorly crafted sermon [he] had ever heard.” A friend had accompanied him and when he turned to her, he found her in tears. She said, “It was exactly what I needed to hear.”

Rogers then told his audience, “That’s when I realized that the space between someone doing the best he or she can and someone in need is holy ground. The Holy Spirit had transformed that feeble sermon for her—and as it turned out, for me too.”[4]

Although the results from our best efforts may look feeble to some, they can touch a heart and change a life when we least expect it. This side of heaven we will never know the people we impacted through our faithful service.

Don’t give up our give in to discouragement. God is still at work.

What has helped you deal with discouragement?

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Adapted with permission from the book by Charles Stone, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them.


[1] Matthew 25

[2] 1 Corinthians 12

[3] David L. Goetz, Death by Suburb (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 43.

[4] In Victor Parachin, “8 Ways to Encourage Your Pastor,” Today’s Christian, Sept/Oct. 1999. http://www.christianitytoday.com/tc/1999/sepoct/9r5035.html?start=1.

Your Brain’s Leadership X-factor

X-Factor: A variable in a situation that could have the most significant impact on the outcome.

X-Factor: a tv show by Simon Cowell that didn’t do so well.

The term X-factor usually carries a positive mystique, a quality not readily identified except by its impact. We’ll say…

  • The singer has the X-factor that makes her great.
  • The business leader has the X-factor that makes her successful.
  • The pastor has the X-factor that makes him engaging.

But what about the brain’s X-factor? Is it a good quality?

Neuroscience has recently discovered important concepts that can enhance a leader’s leadership impact. Essentially our brain uses two processing systems through which we lead, interact with people, and control our emotional and behavioral responses.

Daniel Kahneman, a Noble prize winner, explains these systems in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow  as system 1 and system 2. Matthew Lieberman, a professor at UCLA describes the systems as reflexive and reflective. These two words capture the essence of each process.

  • reflexive, the X-system (the X-factor): that part of our brain that if overstimulated reacts and acts impulsively. It’s spontaneous and acts automatically.
  • reflective, the C-system: that part of our brain that acts with intention and thinks before acting. It regulates emotionally reactivity.

In my 35 years in ministry I’ve been taught and have taught that practicing various spiritual disciplines will yield a controlled, Spirit-filled life. But how many of us leaders, although we practice those disciplines, can react with anger to a staff person, become defensive at a lay leader’s comment, or simply act like a jerk in the heat of the moment?

We’re all guilty. I know I am. So what’s missing?

I believe that Christian leadership teaching has failed to incorporate what neuroscience has discovered about how our brain functions. I’m now on a quest to evangelize Christian leaders to learn how our God-given brain can serve us well.

The two systems I mentioned above, when in balance, work in tandem to help us lead well. However, when the X-system gets overloaded, the X-factor hinders effective leadership.

When we experience stress, the X-factor strengthens as hormones (primarily epinephrine and cortisol) surge into our brains and bodies and exacerbate these problems.

The  brain’s executive center we need for creativity and planning gets tired and becomes ineffective. It’s like a girl drawing a picture with an etch-a-sketch and her brother repeatedly grabbing it and shaking it, thus erasing her uncompleted picture. Similarly, when the X-factor kicks in, we can’t keep those critical creative thoughts in our minds long enough to make them stick.

  • Emotional accelerators diminish the impulse braking centers in our brain.
  • The reactive parts of our brain take over and we can become defensive.
  • Objectivity diminishes.
  • We don’t listen well to others because our brains can’t concentrate on other’s viewpoints without prematurely framing our own responses.
  • We default to easy, mindless activities such as excessively checking emails rather than focusing on important tasks.

God has given us our brains to be used for His glory. The more we understand them and integrate biblical principles with good neuroscience, the better leaders we will become.

Stay tuned for more blogs on this subject.

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A Simple Exercise that will Infuse Life into your Staff

Recently our church staff held our annual in-house evaluation retreat when we reviewed the prior year’s goals and plans. God had given us a good year and we wanted not only to discuss how we could improve, but rejoice in His blessings. After we prayed, we did a simple exercise that infused life into each of us. Here’s what we did that I guarantee will infuse life into your staff, whether they are paid or volunteer.

Gratitude changes everything - inspirational text on a vintage slate blackboard

This will infuse life into your staff.

We have nine on our ministry staff and eight were present that day. I asked everyone to write down the names of each staff member sitting around the table. I then asked them to write down one quality about each person that they most appreciated. That was the easy part. The uncomfortable, yet life-giving part came next.

I then asked each person to look at one individual and tell him or her what they appreciated most about that person. We went around the table while each of us stayed on the ‘hot seat’ (maybe there is a better term for it). Then, one by one, we each looked directly at that staff person and told him or her what we most appreciated about them.

It was an incredibly life affirming experience.

Tears were shed.

We become vulnerable.

Each of us got blessed.

Our retreat took on an incredibly open and affirming tone.

It was amazing.

Gratefulness expressed to others is not only biblical, but it brings with it many practical personal benefits as well. Science is now telling us what the Bible has for centuries: showing gratitude, saying thanks, and affirming others is really good. Here’s what we’re learning about gratefulness.

  1. Gratefulness stimulates Christ-honoring behavior, called pro-social behavior by psychologists.
  2. Gratefulness can actually make us happier.
  3. Gratefulness can help decrease the power of materialism.
  4. Gratefulness can help us learn to forgive more consistently.
  5. Gratefulness can help us sleep better.
  6. Gratefulness can make us feel better physically because it evokes the production of two neurotransmitters in our brains, dopamine and serotonin, involved in reward and well-being, respectively.

So, when we experience and show gratefulness to others or in our hearts, many benefits result.

Two great Scriptures remind us how important gratefulness is.

“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalms 9:1).

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Try this with your staff (or even with your family) and experience how life giving it can be.

What are some other life-giving exercises have you used with your staff?

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