Article: Multitasking: To do or not to do?

Performance Management

Multitasking: To do or not to do?

Multitasking can be done easily by following four simple steps: Prioritize, Schedule, Avoid distractions and Review
Multitasking: To do or not to do?
 

One school of thought believes that multitasking can introduce internal conflict. Fulfilling multiple desires at once leads to loss of concentration

 

End each day by writing down your top priorities for the next day on a post-it note. Then, begin your next day by looking at that post-it

 

At a dinner outing over the weekend, a few of us were engaged in a gripping conversation on when we would allow our children to use a cellphone or iPad and if so by what age? The conversation soon veered to multitasking. In fact, one of the parents introduced us to a terminology called “Media Multitasking” – wherein one uses different types of media at the same time to better integrate information from multiple senses, helping to perform a specific task. In his view, there are more benefits than harm if kids are exposed earlier on to limited amounts of technology.

Though the general consensus among parents was that technology was a good thing, they agreed that children seemed to have very low concentration levels as they multitasked all the time. As a parent of a teenager put it, multitasking meant that their kid was lying on the sofa with eyes glued momentarily on the TV, fingers slipping over a cell phone as she/he texted friends while also keeping the laptop next to them with multiple chat windows open – all this while the homework was lying, long forgotten on the dining table by the corner.

Soon, the conversation drifted to how good the cheesecake was and eventually everyone called it a night!

For some reason, the previous night’s conversation on multitasking stayed with me. As I sipped my morning cup of tea, I thought isn’t what the parent of the teenager described essentially what we do at work every day? For instance, at work, leadership itself requires a form of multitasking. As a boss, we have to strategize with the team, regularly review execution status and ensure teams communicate to stakeholders and adjust the plan if there are delays etc.

Our children imitate us even without us realizing it. So, why is it we want our kids not to do what we do every day? Why can’t we lead by example?

To find answers to my own questions, I decided to first look at how multitasking came into being. Here’s what I found – the term ‘multitasking’ was first used when computers were coded/designed in order to support multiple users at the same time. Today, the purpose of multitasking has gone from supporting multiple users on one computer to a computer supporting multiple desires of a single person at the same time, or in the human context an individual trying to allocate brain space to multiple tasks all at once.

The next question that cropped up was is multitasking good or bad? I couldn’t come up with a black or white answer!

One school of thought believes that multitasking can introduce internal conflict. When you think about it, trying to fulfill multiple desires at once is the opposite of concentration right? When concentration is lost, quality of work suffers, errors creep in and stress, reduced productivity etc. follow.

However, others believe that it is just a matter of force of habit and can be done in moderation without causing any harm. The brain is designed to handle multitasking as long as actions or activities are so familiar that they become habits. This explains why when a toddler is learning how to walk every action requires intense concentration, but adults have no trouble walking and talking at the same time.

But this same analogy does not apply to talking and driving. Why is that? Humans are typically good at balancing acts that use unrelated mental and physical resources. For instance, most people are able to fold laundry and listen to music on the radio without too much trouble. But, once you make the task more complicated, things get messier. As a result, there’s going to be interference with one or more of the tasks–exactly what happens with talking and driving! Either you're going to have to slow down on one of the tasks or you're going to start making mistakes.

In a nutshell, as long as the tasks are routine, multitasking should cause no harm. Good or bad, the reality is we all multitask at some point or the other. That being said, we can each make efforts to consciously work on trying to keep it in moderate levels. Here are a few things I have started doing consciously to ensure I have more time on my hand so the need to task switch lessens thereby improving efficiency and decreasing the likelihood of errors.

Decide what you will say No to

Sometimes what you don’t do is as important as what you do. You can’t do everything and be everywhere, even if you try to., that’s when the need to multitask arises. Don’t get yourself into a situation of “I am too busy living to think about what I want from life”! Take time to think through and decide on what projects you can do away with or delegate in order to invest time in those projects you really want and think you can add value to. Learn to separate the ‘good’ to have projects from the ‘great’ to add value ones.

Prioritize

Take time out to use the Pareto Principle and prioritize projects you have on your plate. Do this at the end of each day by writing down your top priorities for the next day on a post-it note. Similarly, begin your next day by looking at that post-it. Revisit the note all through the day.

Schedule

Now that you know what your priorities are, schedule time for them through the day, one task at a time. While scheduling you may want to start out by following the 20-minute rule. Dedicate a 20-minute chunk of time to a single task, completing it and then switching to the next one. For instance, at work, complete the board presentation review and 20-30 minutes later move on to review the project status with the team. Check mails a few scheduled times a day at work. When you are done with the mails, shut the email window and switch to the next task. Simple rule: Ensure that you keep switching between screens to a minimal as you focus on a particular task.For example, when you go to the gym, you start with 20 minutes of treadmill followed by 20 minutes of the cycle – strength training involves focusing on one part of the body at a time – the analogy of one task at a time!

Avoid distractions

Turn email notifications off and look at mails only during the scheduled time you have set aside. This one is simple: Try it out and you will find that the world is not coming to an end. Similarly, turn all notifications off on your phone that were earlier set for the numerous distractions such as whatsapp chats, facebook updates, LinkedIn alerts, group chats etc. .

Review

Make a list of where you spent your maximum time, including all your major projects, travel related to work, responsibilities and accomplishments etc. Take time to review initially month by month, once you get the hang of it move it to six monthly reviews. Based on what you find, take corrective steps to fix your schedule.

The above are just some of the techniques I am personally trying. I am quite certain the cumulative impact of such small changes will be profound. It will help us manage time better, decrease the need to switch tasks and get us better quality results in both our personal and professional lives.

In conclusion, I would say switch your tasks when you really have to and always focus on the job at hand for best results. Good luck, would love to hear your comments.

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Topics: Performance Management

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