The ravages multitasking inflicts upon your mental state and productivity are (finally) getting some ink. Multitasking used to be something highly-evolved corporate warriors did well. It used to be a badge of honor, like calluses on athletes. I remember the days when you’d ask an employee to manage another project on top of his already-full docket, and he’d stare at you incredulously. “It’s called multitasking man” was a common rationalization for expecting someone to do more than could reasonably be expected.
(Nevermind doing all these things well. That’s another story.)
Things are changing these days. After watching good workers burn out, work quality decline, and work/life balance issues upset even our most dedicated employees, productivity gurus, psychologists and managers everywhere started questioning the wisdom of the always-connected, always-on, always-expectant lifestyle.
Tony Schwartz over at Harvard Business Review talks about this in his latest column, entitled The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time:
The biggest cost — assuming you don’t crash — is to your productivity. In part, that’s a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you’re partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it’s because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.
But most insidiously, it’s because if you’re always doing something, you’re relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.
When I talk to folks, I call this the cost of switching gears.
Let’s say I’m in the middle of writing an article. I’m heads down, my email is off, my browser shut down, and all notifications silenced. I’m in a groove. I’m getting something done.
Then, out of nowhere, a colleague walks into my office and starts telling me about his weekend round of golf. He doesn’t pick up the vibe that I was cranking away at something important.
The mere act of pausing to listen to his stories of 50 foot putts crashed what I was doing. It forced me into another gear, abruptly.
Even if Mr. Golf is in my office for two minutes, when he leaves, I have to find the writing gear again. I have to get back to where I was. That’s not something you do at the flip of a switch, and it takes some time and mental energy. You’ve probably experienced it yourself, and if you are tasked with creative output, the gear-changing cost is even worse.
Now, add two phone calls, a chat request, and three urgent emails to Mr. Golf. Yeah baby, you’re multitasking — and getting nothing done well while burning yourself out at a ferocious rate.
It’s not Mr. Golf’s fault. It’s not Facebook’s fault. Sure, they have roles in the equation, but ultimately it’s up you you to set boundaries and enforce them so you can get quality work done.
Schwartz recommends something I’ve been doing for a good two years now, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s simple:
1. Do the most important thing first in the morning, preferably without interruption, for 60 to 90 minutes, with a clear start and stop time. If possible, work in a private space during this period, or with sound-reducing earphones. Finally, resist every impulse to distraction, knowing that you have a designated stopping point. The more absorbed you can get, the more productive you’ll be. When you’re done, take at least a few minutes to renew.
Easy to read, hard to do. You need discipline, and that means letting others in the office know that for 60-90 minutes every morning, you’re off limits unless the building is under attack by giant spiders. This means a closed door, mute notifications, and no Outlook chiming at you. You’ll be amazed at what you get done.
Another effective measure: block out time twice a week so you can just think. This doesn’t mean nap or play games on your iPhone, it means time to think and jot things down. Mindmap. Get a pen and start writing a list down. Take your biggest challenge and put it in the middle of a blank page, and write your fears, thoughts, and potential solutions to it on the same page. Again, it requires discipline, but the rewards are many.
You can keep multitasking and burning out, or you can start putting a few boundaries in place and working with more focus and calm. Your choice. But understand one last important thing: if you start taking the time to focus on one thing at a time, you can’t expect your employees to be always-connected. Your example will be a good one; let them follow it.
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