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Rethinking Multitasking

May 22nd, 2018 by Lisa Porro, Inspiring HR

Less Multi-Tasking… More Effectiveness

So, you’re hiring and seeing a slew of resumes from candidates who claim to be experts at multi-tasking. In interviews, they profess a great love of jumping from project to project, call to call, and back to the first project again, all while keeping everything straight and finishing every task in record time.

But… does effective multi-tasking really exist?

Do you need to rethink that “ability to multitask” off the job descriptions as a requirement?

Increasingly, we are seeing more information tell us that, for the majority of the population, multi-tasking may actually be bad for your brain (some articles and studies cited below). A many-tasked brain is a distracted one. While many people think they are excellent multitaskers, the amount of car accidents caused by texting and driving as well as potentially embarrassing occurrences of “reply all” emails that should have been directed to one person may prove otherwise.

I remember taking a commuter bus in downtown Los Angeles a few years ago and while looking down at the traffic below I caught sight of a young man in his car.  He was attempting to drive while talking on his phone and trying to eat a steak dinner (with a steak knife) off of a plate he had balanced on his center console.  I can only imagine how that ended for him.  Best case scenario: he may have ended up with mashed potatoes on his tie.  The bottom line is that he was trying to do three things at once and all of them probably poorly.

While the ability to manage priorities is a necessity, somewhere along the line an idea formed that everything had to happen at the same time. Some ways to help your employees avoid a multi-task meltdown?

Set Expectations from the Top Down. 

  • Discourage the “Instant Response” While you’ve never given a formal mandate that employees answer work calls or emails while on the road, there may be an impression out there that being available 24-7 is the key to success at your company. Proactively coach your team to be fully present at each meeting and on each task, then, if you see that someone is responding to your emails when you know he or she is on the road to or from work, or at midnight, a quick conversation with your employee to put his or her mind at ease might do the trick. And along those lines…
  • Try not to send emails marked “Urgent!”. While email is a quick way to communicate and get questions answered, it is also an amazing form of distraction.  I’ve had someone send me an email and fifteen minutes later call me to ask if I’ve received it, because it was an urgent matter.  Consider that someone may not be answering an email because they are deep into a project that you’ve assigned.  If something is truly urgent, it is probably better to pick up the phone or stop by.
  • Meetings, meetings, and more meetings: Ever have one of those days when you went to meeting after meeting which left you confused by conflicting priorities and, by the way, left you no time to actually get any work done? Try to model good anti-multitasking behavior by not scheduling impromptu meetings that would interrupt the flow of the workday. Remember, once employees have to drop what they are doing to refocus their attention on something else, it may be hard to get back into the groove again. Regularly scheduled meetings can take their toll, too.  It may be a good idea to evaluate the importance and frequency of all meetings from time to time to see if they can be paired down or eliminated if they are no longer useful.
  • Keep an Eye on “Hot Priority” Overload. Managing priorities is the opposite of setting all priorities to #1.  If all projects on someone’s list are labeled “Hot! Do first!” then none of them will be first… or considered any more important than the rest.  Encourage employees to come to you if they get conflicting information on where their projects should fall on the importance scale and assist with any roadblocks they are coming across that impede their process.
  • Avoid Changing Priorities Mid-Stream… too often. It does happen: agreed-upon priorities have been set and then one thing occurs that causes everything else to change course.  If it happens too frequently, though, you will have employees who are frustrated and scattered and feeling like they’ll never see anything to completion.  If there is a manager who seems to love to do this, try to work with him or her to see what can still be salvaged to give hard-working employees a sense of constancy.

And finally…

  • Encourage Single-Tasking Whenever Possible. If you happen to catch employees trying to catch up on emails during a meeting, or trying to take a work call while eating lunch and reviewing a presentation printout at the same time, try to do what you can to gently nudge them away from distraction mode.  If a manager gives employees permission to focus on one thing at a time – and to do that one thing well – they might actually do it.

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Additional Resources on the Topic:

“Why Single-Tasking Makes You Smarter” by Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD

“The Myth of Multitasking” by Nancy K. Napier, PhD

“The Limits of Multitasking” by Kevin Rafferty

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