May 5, 2016

In the past, I have mentioned in passing that multitasking is not necessarily a valuable skill[1], but rather that it is an inefficient way to work. A recent piece in the Washington Post, “Multitasking is actually kind of a problem — for kids and adults”, has put additional focus on this.

How can we deal with this – given that our workplaces and our personal performance seems to demand that we multitask (excuse me, I just got an unimportant text on my smartphone I have to read). Now, where was I?

Oh yes, how should you deal with multitasking?

First, recognize that it is not a sign of efficiency, but rather it is becoming recognized as being very, very inefficient. When multitasking, you are not concentrating on any one of the tasks, but merely “handling” all of them.

Second, when you need to learn something, whether it is in a training session or in self-study, protect yourself, if possible isolate yourself, from multitasking. Why? Because research increasingly indicates that your ability to retain what you are supposed to be “studying” or “learning” while multitasking is diminished – possibly substantially.

Third, consider politeness. If you are talking with someone, not only is it inefficient to try and deal with an email or text, it is impolite. Rudeness is not a step on the path to learning to work with others. Maybe that is why multitasking is associated with other asocial attitudes.

Fourth, by using multitasking to handle a variety of items, you are not learning how to prioritize. If everything is important, then nothing is important. And your work product will eventually show that.

Fifth, learn to do things differently. Does every email you are copied on demand a reply or acknowledgement? If so, why? Is that a sign that everyone needs to be on board, or just a sign of another’s inefficiency brought out by multitasking? You know (oops excuse me, a just got a new “friend” on Facebook). Ok, now…yes. If you want to contact some people, it is too easy just to contact all of them, particularly if they are already on the email you are replying to or forwarding.

Sixth, separate business from personal. Use your business email only for business. Do not use it to set up a birthday party for a fellow employee, or to forward a joke, or to get a confirmation for an Amazon order. Set up and use a personal email for all non-business activities. Then check that only on your time, not on company time.

Seventh, do not get drawn into multitasking because others are doing it. It is bad enough that you dress yourself the way others do. Do not buy into this bad habit just because others cannot deal with their problems with it. Think of shutting off the smartphone during meetings. And, from a CI point of view, you should not be using your smartphone for any business communication while in public places where others can hear what you say or see what you see. Protect your firm’s information.

Eighth, structure and pace things out. Now, ideally, you should set some (reasonable) goals every day when you start work. If possible, try to aim at completing specific things by specific times. And do not allow yourself to be distracted while doing that. If you know you are aiming to finish a presentation by 10 AM, you are a lot less likely to allow a routine email to interrupt it. Also, take a break, at least a mental one, between tasks. Start by appreciating that you completed one task. Then do something to clear your mind. Maybe this is the time to check the inbox (not during a meeting with the new product development team). Or maybe you can play one hand of solitaire or Mahjong. Or just stand up and take a few steps.

In short, treat multitasking the way you would treat having to type on a smartphone while on a trampoline – it is the most inefficient way to work, and something to be avoided at all costs.

Sorry, that’s all I can do now – LinkedIn just sent me a note about how many people viewed my profile, so I must go and check who they are.

[1] ; ;


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