Bouncing Around

Did you know that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent? As surprising as this number is, what is more surprising is that those who multitask believe that they are being more productive than if they focus on one task at a time. Let’s have a closer look at multitasking.

The first thing to consider is that no one can truly multitask. What they are doing is “task switching.” According to Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries: “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount. It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.”

If one is task switching, then the way to save time is to batch your tasks. For instance, if you need to attend meetings, then schedule your meetings all in one day or half-day. This way, you get into the necessary mindset required for meetings and you get meetings done all at once (or in chunks of time). This is much better than having one meeting every day.

Switching frequently between tasks can also introduce errors into your work. This is especially true if your work involves a lot of critical thinking. A 2010 French study concluded that while the human brain can handle two complicated tasks without too much trouble, introducing a third task can overwhelm the frontal cortex and increase the number of mistakes.

Another reason not to multitask is that it increases stress. A University of California found that employees who received a steady stream of email stayed in a perpetual “high alert” mode with higher heart rates. Those without constant access multitasked less and were also less stressed.

Multitasking also increases “inattentional blindness.” One study found that 75% of college students who walked across a street while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. While the brain did not register seeing the clown, there is real danger in inattentional blindness. What if a speeding car was heading toward you while you were engaged on your cell phone?

Multitasking makes it harder to switch between tasks. This is especially true as our brains age. A 2011 study from the University of California in San Francisco concluded that it becomes harder to get back on track after interruptions. This is because sudden interruptions forcing us to focus on another task disrupts short term memory.

All of this begs the question, “Do those who say they can multitask actually multitask and do they do it well?” According to a 2013 University of Utah study, if you engage in multitasking frequently, you are much worse at it than those who only engage occasionally.

The next time you feel the need to bounce around between tasks, STOP. Instead, prioritize and schedule your work to focus on one task at a time. To become more productive, do not divide your attention between tasks. And remember that overall, frequent multitasking or task switching leads to more harm than good.

Triage—Best Served Regularly

Triage helps us decipher between the important and unimportant and is essential to ensuring we do the right work at the right time and to/for the right person/thing. But be aware: Avoid the trap of triaging work just for the sake of keeping workflow moving.

Blindly triaging work can cost more than stopping the flow to challenge whether the work is necessary in the first place. This is particularly relevant to such things as writing reports that no one will ever read, creating programs that no one will ever use, or creating new departments that have limited (or no) usefulness to stakeholders or to the organization. You have an obligation to your organization to challenge when the work you are doing has no value.

But if you are doing the right work and for the right reasons, then managing work through triage can be very effective.

Triage is about prioritizing work based on its importance and urgency. It is particularly useful when applied to managing information. By triaging information such as correspondence and e-mail, you can save a lot of time if the most important gets done first. In fact, many people might say that triage is like applying the 80:20 rule to everything you do—you create 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts by focusing your efforts primarily on the important and urgent.

How do you determine what is important and urgent? Here are five suggestions for dispatching your important and urgent work to create superb results for you and your organization:

  1. Keep an updated “to-do” list and focus on completing medium-importance, high urgency goals most of the time. This will give you 80% of your results. Constantly scan your list and drop items that are of low importance or have no urgency.
  2. Standardize work whenever you can. For instance, have procedures in place on how to write reports, how to format documents, how to handle email, etc. The more standards in your organization, the more time you will have for high-productivity and high-creativity items instead of thinking about how to write a report, how to format a document or how to handle email.
  3. When making decisions, don’t focus on the decision. Instead, focus on options that may result in the right decision. It’s much easier to make a decision based on a few options instead of making a decision based on the entire case.
  4. Close your email and browser when working on important work. You will get the important work done much sooner.
  5. Stop multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is counterproductive. In fact, everyone’s brain slows down considerably when trying to juggle multiple tasks.

And if the above still falls short of helping you and your organization achieve exceptional workflow, outsourcing of work is another option. It costs much less to hire experts than it does to fumble through work that is not within your or your organization’s area of expertise.

The fact is that none of us are good at everything, but all of us are good at something. Determine the areas where you and your organization create the most value—and outsource everything else.