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Sandra Wiley
Sandra Wiley

The myth of multitasking

You can’t do anything well if you’re doing too many things at once.

July 24, 2014
By Sandra Wiley

The majority of people who multitask do so because they are overwhelmed with the number of items on their personal and professional “to do” list. Think about the number of monitors that have overtaken our workstations. How many do you have? Two, three, four? I once visited a client who had six. It looked a little like NASA Mission Control.

Some of you might be thinking that multitasking is just a way of life, that it’s possible to carry on a conversation with a person while texting someone else. In firms, we pride ourselves on the quality of the work we do for clients. When too much multitasking happens, your work suffers. Additionally, we work hard in our firms to increase productivity and financial metrics. Multitasking is likely to slow the positive results you are looking for.

Along with technical and professional challenges, multitasking can have a negative effect on health and well-being. Your brain is like a muscle, and when you multitask and jump from one thing to another for an extended period, your brain becomes fatigued. It is likely that you will miss details, feel a drop-off in physical endurance, and become a bit cranky.

Try a few of these simple steps to combat multitasking mania:

  • Be present. Stephen Lundin, in the book Fish!, says to be present and spend your mental and physical energy in one place. Keep your focus on that one thing, and you will be shocked at how fast you complete the task, or how much more you hear from the person you are with.
  • Do one thing at a time. I know you are thinking that’s not possible. It is possible, and it is effective. Block your calendar, shut your door, go to a conference room, or clear your desk of everything except what you are working on.
  • Finish what you start. Once you start on one task, finish it and move to the next one. This takes more conscious effort than you might think. It takes dedication not to look at those emails or pick up the file you need to work on next, but productivity comes from staying focused start to finish.
  • Stash the technology. I love my iPhone and iPad. However, there is a time and a place for those and other gadgets. Just because you can use those wonderful tools anytime and anyplace doesn’t mean you should. Try closing your email, turning off your phone, and putting away the unneeded technology to remain focused.
  • Clear your workspace. A cluttered workspace can cause distractions. Take time to clean out everything except the work at hand.
  • Schedule time for your task. Use your calendar to schedule projects that need extra attention. Protect the time and protect yourself by adding “focus” activities to your calendar just as you would a client appointment.

Change your multitasking ways by taking on a little challenge this month. Try one or two of the suggestions above, and see if your productivity increases.

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Sandra Wiley is COO of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kan., and is a popular speaker who addresses topics such as team building, talent development, and performance improvement.