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We’ve Been Wrong About Multitasking All Along

We’ve Been Wrong About Multitasking All Along

Picture this scene: It’s 30 minutes into my workday and I’ve already ticked three things off my To Do list. I’ve got something done about finances, finalized a networking meeting, polished a pitch, and am ready to do some serious writing. Then all of a sudden, my internet connection is down. Whoa! How can anyone get anything done without the internet? After some minutes of panic and ranting, I begin to do what I can, offline. And then, eventually, the internet’s absence reveals some beliefs I had wrong about multitasking because—surprise!—work flows smoothly until the end of a most productive day, despite my not being able to check and respond to messages or quickly research points.

While the ability to work on simultaneous tasks has its merits, knowing where we got it wrong about multitasking gives us control over the work process. Here are 10 things we’ve had wrong about multitasking:

1. It’s not really multitasking.

Multitasking is actually switching between tasks. Studies by psychologist René Marois at Vanderbilt University revealed that when humans attempt to do two tasks at once, execution of the first task leads to a delay in the second task because a bottleneck occurs in the brain’s information processing area. Simply put, the brain cannot effectively do two things at once.

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2. Not all work can be done with multitasking.

Multitasking can only be done when one task is automatic, such as showering or walking. In The Multitasking Mind, authors Dario Salvucci and Niels Taatgen cite reading while mixing a bowl of ingredients and pulling weeds in the garden while listening to the radio as examples of effortless multitasking. Difficulties come up when tasks involve the same brain processing or body part, such as typing and using a mouse (both require the right hand) or driving and scanning a navigation device (both require vision). The most intense conflict is multitasking in the head, where cognitive and linguistic brain processes create interference, such as reading while having a conversation.

3. Not everyone can multitask.

Some people are better at multitasking than others, but they are not necessarily those who multitask a lot. “In fact, the more likely they are to do it, the more likely they are to be bad at it.” This is what Dr. David Sanbonmatsu and Dr. David Strayer, psychology professors at the University of Utah, found in a research study. The study suggests that  people multitask not because they have the ability, but “because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task.”

4. Multitasking does not save time.

Time-saving is another major thing I got wrong about multitasking. Switching from one task to another or doing two or more tasks in rapid succession uses up seconds. Dr. Joshua Rubinstein, Dr. Jeffrey Evans and Dr. David Meyer conducted experiments in which young adults switched between tasks like solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. They found that multitasking actually takes as much as 40% of productive time.

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5. Multitasking is not efficient.

The study of Rubinstein, Evans, and Meyer additionally showed that multitasking involves more errors that occur from cognitive load in the brain. The brain needs to not only adjust to the second task but also to remember where it stopped in the original task. If counting is interrupted by a second task, you need to reorient and remember where you stopped counting in order to proceed with an accurate count. Errors also occur with activities that involve critical thinking.

6. Multitasking can be dangerous.

Air traffic controllers work with heightened stress levels caused by the strenuous effort required to focus on their tasks. They are aware of the dangerous consequences of one mistake. Near-fatal results can also take place in the medical field, as in the case of a 56-year-old male dementia patient. At a visit during hospital rounds, his attending physician instructed the resident to discontinue his anticoagulation medication. The hospital’s computerized provider order entry system (CPOE) allowed for this to be done in real time. The resident began to enter the order into her smartphone but received a text message from a friend about a party, which she responded to. The physician and resident then continued on their rounds. The resident didn’t complete the entry to discontinue the medication resulting in an emergency open-heart surgery, which the patient, fortunately, survived.

7. A multitasking boss sends the wrong signal.

In her book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, Carol Kinsey Goman talks about leaders’ non-verbal messages. An example of this is a boss who verbally tells her team they are important and are always welcome in her office. Yet, when a team member seeks her out, this boss answers questions while writing an email or shuffling papers and does not make eye contact. Result: the team feel they don’t even get half of this leader’s attention.

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8. Multitasking gets in the way of meetings.

You’d think with all the devices available, meetings would cover more in less time. Attendees should be able to note down their reporting topics and action items. We got that wrong about multitasking too. What usually happens is people lose track of the discussion because they are tweaking their reports or noting down action items. In a productive meeting, the attendees are also mentally present and actively engaged in the discussion. One assigned person takes down the meeting minutes for distribution later.

9. Multitasking dulls memory and the ability to organize.

What we often believe to be memory problems are actually attention problems. You cannot remember later what you do not pay attention to now. Child and adult psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Hallowell describes attention deficit trait (ADT) as a response to our hyperkinetic environment. When an individual is dealing with more inputs than they possibly can, their brain circuits get overloaded. They are unable to stay organized, set priorities, or manage time.

10. Multitasking detracts from relationships.

We justify work multitasking as a means to have more time for our relationships. Well, we got that wrong about multitasking too. As more mobile apps become available for work, chores, and errands, the role of multitasking with mobile phones has reached villainous status. No doubt you’ve experienced the frustration of having a conversation with a partner or a friend that is interrupted by text messages, emails, or actual phone calls. A study by the University of Essex showed the mere presence of a mobile phone—even when not in use—during personal conversations becomes a barrier to closeness, trust, and empathy.

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Why what we got wrong about multitasking is good news.

It’s okay not to multitask. Focusing on one task allows you to finish it sooner and begin the next task. You can also better focus on important face-to-face encounters.

When you need to multitask, you can do it well. Those who do not usually multitask make the best multitaskers, according to the Strayer and Sanbonmatsu study.

You can choose effective task pairings and devices. Have double PC monitors to facilitate research, use foot pedals when transcribing, and listen to select audiobooks while driving.

Oh, and by all means, whistle while you work!

Featured photo credit: Arthur Gebuys via flickr.com

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Published on January 16, 2019

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

We’re all busy, but sometimes we go through periods where the work piles up and it seems like it might never end.

You might have such a heavy workload that it feels too intimidating to even start.

You may have said yes to some or too many projects, and now you’re afraid you won’t be able to deliver.

That’s when you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and start looking at what’s working and what’s not working.

Here’re 13 strategies you can use to get out from under your overwhelming workload:

1. Acknowledge You Can’t Do It All

Many of us have a tendency to think we can do more than we actually can. We take on more and more projects and responsibility and wear numerous hats.

We all have the opportunity to have and take on more work than we can reasonably expect to get done. Unfortunately, our workload is not static. Even now, while you are reading this article, I’m guessing that your inbox is filling up with fresh new tasks.

To make real, effective progress, you have to have both the courage and resourcefulness to say, “This is not working”. Acknowledge that you can’t do it all and look for better solutions.

At any given time in your life, there are likely many things that aren’t going according to plan. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself and those around you about what’s not working for you, both personally and professionally.

The more you exercise your ability to tell the truth about what’s working and what’s not working, the faster you’ll make progress.

2. Focus on Your Unique Strengths

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a leader or working as part of a team, every individual has unique strengths they can bring to the table.

The challenge is that many people end up doing things that they’re simply not very good at.

In the pursuit of reaching your goals or delivering a project, people end up doing everything themselves or taking on things that don’t play to their unique strengths. This can result in frustration, overwhelm and overwork.

It can mean projects taking a lot longer to complete because of knowledge gaps, or simply not utilizing the unique strengths of other people you work with.

It is often not about how to complete this project more effectively but who can help deliver this project.

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So, what are your unique strengths that will ensure your workload is delivered more effectively? Here’re some questions to help you reflect:

  • Are you a great strategist?
  • Are you an effective planner?
  • Is Project Management your strength?
  • Is communication and bringing people together your strength?
  • Are you the ideas person?
  • Is Implementation your strength?

Think about how you can bring the biggest value to your work and the projects you undertake.

3. Use the Strengths of Your Team

One of the simplest ways to manage your workload effectively is to free up your time so you bring your highest level of energy, focus and strengths to each project.

Delegation or better teamwork is the solution.

Everyone has unique strengths. It’s essential to think teamwork rather than working in isolation to ensure projects can be completed effectively. Besides, every time you give away a task or project that doesn’t play to your unique strengths, you open up an opportunity to do something you’re more talented at. This will empower both yourself and those around you.

Rather than taking on all the responsibilities yourself, look at who you can work with to deliver the best results possible.

4. Take Time for Planning

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. – Abraham Lincoln

One hour of effective planning could save hours of time. Rather than just rushing in and getting started on projects, take the time to map everything in.

You can take the time to think about:

  • What’s the purpose of the project?
  • How Important is it?
  • When does it need to be delivered by?
  • What is the best result and worst result for this project?
  • What are the KPIs?
  • What does the project plan and key milestones look like?
  • Who is working on this project?
  • What is everyone’s responsibilities?
  • What tolerances can I add in?
  • What are the review stages?
  • What are the challenges we may face and the solutions for these challenges?

Having absolute clarity on the project, the project deliverables and the result you want can save a lot of time. It also gets you clear on the priorities and timelines, so you can block out the required amount of time to focus and concentrate.

5. Focus on Priorities

Not everything is a priority, although it can often feel, in the moment, that it is.

Whatever you’re working on, there is always the Most Urgent, Important or Most Valuable projects or tasks.

One tool you can use to maximize your productivity and focus on your biggest priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix. This strategic tool for taking action on the things that matter most is simple. You separate your actions based on four possibilities:

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
  2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
  3. Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

James Clear has a great description on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix: How to be More Productive By Using the Eisenhower Box

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    The method I use with my coaching clients is to ask them to lay out their Top Five priorities for the day. Then to start with the most important priority first. At the end of the day, you review performance against these priorities.

    If you didn’t get everything accomplished, start the next day with your number one priority.

    If you are given additional task/projects during the day, then you will need to gauge their importance V the other priorities.

    6. Take Time Out

    To stay on top of a heavy workload, it’s important to take time out to rest and recuperate.

    If your energy levels are high and your mind and body is refreshed and alert, you are in more of a peak state to handle a heavy workload.

    Take time out of your day to go for a walk or get some exercise in. Leave early when possible and spend time with people who give you a lot of energy.

    In the background, it’s essential to get a good night’s sleep and eat healthily to sharpen the mind.

    Take a look at this article learn about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

    7. Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance

    Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be tough. The balance we all crave is very different from one another.

    I’ve written before about 13 Work Life Balance Tips for a Happy and Productive Life. Working longer and harder doesn’t mean achieving more, especially if you have no time to spend with the people that matter most. The quality of who you are as a person, the relationships you have, the time you spend in work, deciding on what matters most is completely within your control.

    Work-life balance is about finding peace within yourself to be fully present, wherever you are, whether that be in the office or at home, right now. It’s about choosing what matters most and creating your own balanced life.

    If you feel there is not enough balance, then it may be time to make a change.

    8. Stop Multitasking

    Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain simply can’t work effectively by doing more than one thing at a time—at least more than one thing that requires focused attention.

    So get your list of priorities (see earlier point), do the most important thing first, then move to the next item and work down your list.

    When you split your focus over a multitude of different areas, you can’t consistently deliver a high performance. You won’t be fully present on the one task or project at hand.

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    If you allocate blocked time and create firm boundaries for specific activities and commitments, you won’t feel so overwhelmed or overworked with everything you have to do.

    9. Work in Blocks of Time

    To keep your energy up to produce your best results it’s essential to take regular breaks.

    I use the 60-60-30 method myself and teach it to my coaching clients.

    Work on a project for a sustained period of 50 minutes.

    Then take a 10-minute break. This could be taking a walk, having a healthy snack or just having a conversation with someone.

    Then continue to work on the project for a further 50 minutes.

    Then take another 10-minute break.

    Then take a complete 30-minute break to unplug from the work. This could be time for a proper lunch, a quick bit of exercise, reading or having a walk.

    By simply taking some time out, your energy levels stay up, the quality of your work improves and you reduce the risk of becoming burned out.

    10. Get Rid of Distractions

    Make an estimation on how many times you are distracted during an average working day. Now take that number and multiply it by 25. According to Gloria Mark in her study on The Cost of Interrupted Work, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after interruption.[1]

    “Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood and lower productivity.”

    Distractions don’t just take up your time during the distraction, they can derail your mental progress and focus for almost 25 minutes. So, if you are distracted 5 times per day, you could be losing almost 2 hours every day of productive work and almost 10 hours every week.

    If you have an important project to work on, find a space where you won’t be distracted, or try doing this.

    11. Commit Focused Time to Smaller Tasks

    You know sometimes, you need to simply tackle these tasks and take action on them. But there’s always something more pressing.

    Small tasks can often get in the way of your most important projects. They sit there on your daily To Do list but are often forgotten about because of more important priorities or because they hold no interest for you. But they take up mental energy. They clutter your mind.

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    Commit to spending a specific period of time completing all the small tasks you have on your To Do list. It will give you peace of mind and the space to focus more on your bigger priorities.

    12. Take a Time Audit

    Do you know exactly where your time is going each day? Are you spending too long on certain projects and tasks to the detriment of bigger opportunities?

    Spend a bit of time to analyze where you are spending your time. This insight will amaze you and give you the clarity to start adjusting where you focus your time and on what projects.

    You can start by taking a piece of paper and creating three columns:

    Column A is Priority Work. Column B is Good Work. Column C is low value work or stuff.

    Each day, write down the project or task and the time spent on each. Allocate that time to one of the columns.

    At the end of the week, record the total time spent in each column.

    If you are spending far too much time on certain types of work, look to change things so your focused time is in Column B and C.

    13. Protect Your Confidence

    It is essential to protect our confidence to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed, stressed and lose belief.

    When you have confidence as a daily resource, you are in a better position to problem solve, learn quicker, respond to anything, adjust to anything, and achieve your biggest opportunities.

    Confidence gives you the ability to transform fear into focused and relaxed thinking, communication, and action. This is key to put your mind into a productive state.

    When confidence is high, you can clearly see the possibilities at hand and create strategies to take advantage of them, or to solve the challenges you face each day.

    Final Words

    A heavy workload can be tough to deal with and can cause stress, burnout and ongoing frustration.

    The key is to tackle it head on, rather than let it go on and compound the long-term effects. Hopefully, you can take action on at least one of these tips.

    If it gets too much, and negatively affects your physical and mental health, it may be time to talk to someone. Instead of dealing with it alone and staying unhappier, resentful and getting to a point where you simply can’t cope, you have to make a change for your own sanity.

    Featured photo credit: Hannah Wei via unsplash.com

    Reference

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