Carpe Diem - The Futility of Multitasking
Lets be frank, I’m awful at multitasking. By the time I’m halfway through one task, I get distracted and get involved in another. The end result? Poor quality attention leads to poor output. Be honest, when did you last turn your phone off, or ignore social or news media for a full working day? Do you ever allow yourself to get distracted? Why do we do it?
I think firstly, there is an internalised illusion that ‘busy’ means productive, so we can kid ourselves to believe that we are being efficient in the use of our limited time, but secondly, because modern lives have a growing multitude of information channels as inputs into our work and social lives, we have become conditioned to the dopamine produced by these interruptions and the short term high they provide. Adults are reported to have an effective attention span of 10-20 minutes, and it is highly likely that this is reducing in the age of ‘60 characters or less’ information packets, so it is no wonder we flit like ADHD butterflies from one activity to another.
When I was invited to write this article, I found myself doing research whilst watching a film and responding to texts on my phone, until I realised the hypocrisy of the situation. So, here is my resolution for the New Year – stop trying to multi-task and give important tasks the undivided attention they really deserve. This sounds easy in principle but it’s hard in practice, because it means cutting yourself off from the sources of interruption and having a great deal of discipline towards your time management.
Here’s what I’m going to do:
- Keep a To-Do list, prioritised according to Urgent and Important tasks, and review it twice a day, reprioritising as necessary.
- Put time in my calendar for all my key tasks, so I have realistic windows in which I can work on them, uninterrupted. If I struggle to allocate sufficient time, it will be because I haven’t been ruthless enough with prioritising my calendar according to the tasks and demands put upon me. If I’m constantly moving an item out, question whether it is a priority at all.
- Challenge external demands on my time. If I can’t add value in a meeting, or if my prioritised tasks outweigh the benefit of my attendance, I’ll decline the meeting, and manage the stakeholders accordingly.
- Put aside specific time to work on emails – not only does this allow me the necessary window to concentrate on mails, but more importantly it allows me to justify (to myself) concentrating exclusively on other tasks without the guilt of not checking my mailbox.
- Allocate time for lunch – this is also my ‘thinking time’ – this can be moved or reduced if urgent items come up (lets be realistic) but by including it in my schedule it at least sets the expectation and sets aside a dedicated time window which I can rearrange if necessary.
- Allocate some time to ‘come up for air’ between tasks – even if its 10 mins here and there, to get a coffee and recharge.
- Allow myself to remove myself from distractions when focussing on a task – whether that means turning my phone off, setting IM to Do Not Disturb, putting headphones on, or working from home/café/meeting room.
- I normally use two screens at work – one for email and one for the task in hand. This will have to change, I will need to switch off the email screen so as to maintain my undivided attention.
This is all great, but there are other challenges, as a team leader. I want my team to be able to approach me without me being constantly unavailable, or even appear aloof and detached. I need to be visible and lead by example. So, how do I cope with that?
Firstly, I am transparent with my team about how I work, and how to best use my time. I brief them on keeping mails and messages concise, and doing due diligence in considering the problem statement and options available before coming to me with an issue. In time, and with support, they will learn to make the considered decision themselves, at the right level, if I sufficiently empower them.
I share my calendar with my team so they can see when I am available and when I am not. I will make set days of the week ‘Team days’ when we all attend the office and team meetings and 121s are scheduled. The team know that 121s are the best place to discuss non urgent issues and items relating to their career, and they understand the importance of attending team meetings for cascades and raising queries and general items.
If my team do need to contact me urgently, they can call and I can pick up the voicemail between tasks – few issues are impacted for the sake of an hour or so.
Above all, discipline takes practice. Effective time management will involve breaking bad habits that some of us have developed throughout our expansive careers. Put the framework in place and keep applying it, get your team and your manager on side and you’re set for success. Carpe Diem, for the time is now.
Published at pmmagazine.net with the consent of Tim Olsen