Focus and the Myth of Multitasking

Focus and the Myth of Multitasking

I am not a fan of multitasking. I’ll admit it. I realize that’s blasphemy in today’s corporate culture/business speak, but I think multitasking is garbage. Bunk. Worthless. Let me explain.

Back in the early 00’s I was attending university and during a particular course a discussion about how to properly interview for an open position was underway. Since I was a soon to be graduate I listened intently on the sage advice being given. The professor talked about multitasking and if I was asked if I could do it, to emphatically agree that in fact it was one of my strengths. The problem is, it was not and still is not. When I finally did land a promising position with a Fortune 500, I couldn’t get my job done in 40 hours a week to save my life. Long evenings and weekends were common, and eventually I just burned out. What happened?

I was just trying to be a good multitasking employee.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking, by definition, is doing two things at once. Some people believe it’s being able to concentrate amidst distractions, but it is not. That is the definition of focus. Multitasking is also not prioritization, because multitasking assumes two or more items are at the same level and therefore must be done at the same time, and that is the mark of an overachiever. But let’s all admit it, doing two things at once is ineffective. This is how mistakes happen, things get dropped, and people end up spending the weekend “catching up”. Let’s see if we can work this out.

Is anyone truly good at multitasking?

Can some people do it? I’ve not met one in the workplace. I’ve seen moms with twins multitask like no other, but we’re not talking about home life. In fact, that person I’m alluding to who could seemingly change a diaper while feeding another one fell into her bed completely exhausted at night. So definitely not optimal, but that was her lot at that point in time. But I digress, we’re talking about the office.

In my observation, even the ones who claim to be good at multitasking seem to miss emails, come late to meetings, and work atrociously long hours. The real question should be, “can you prioritize and execute?” Or an even better one, “are you able to get into a workflow to finish your work on time?”

Being able to plan, take notes, and work in a way that minimizes mistakes is the key to getting things done. Multitasking is not. I’m not the only one who believes this either, actual studies prove it. Multitasking can have negative impacts on ourselves in the form of depression and anxiety. So can we all just admit multitasking sucks?

Escaping multitasking

One of the most effective way to escape the trap of multitasking is blocking off time and focusing on one subject at a time. Luckily Outlook or iCalendar makes this easy to do. It also means minimizing pop-ins and creating a culture that respects other people’s time regardless of their status. I remember reporting to someone at a previous position who constantly had a line of people coming into her office and asking her unrelated questions throughout the day. She also worked 70 hour long weeks to get her own job done. When it finally came down for me to choose between moving into her role or taking one on a different path, I took the different path.

So what should she have done differently? Since most of the issues at hand could have been boiled down to three general categories (purchase orders, payment status, inventory issues), it would have been much better to coalesce the dozens of 5 minute interruptions she received in a day into an hour. That way she could meet with those same three offenders in a work session and knock out their issues at once. She also could have empowered them to make some lower level decisions so they didn’t have to come to her. This would have enabled them to move forward on lower value tasks that they could have easily problem solved on their own.

Besides just blocking and delegating out lower value tasks, one of the biggest inhibitors to escaping multitasking is having enough time to get it all done. A common complaint among executives is they spend too much time in meetings. This is usually indicative of a culture that does not respect time. Typically meetings run long because of agenda creep. Everyone should agree on what is to be discussed. But before that even happens, it should be decided if the meeting is even necessary in the first place. I’m sure many people have been to meetings that could have just been an email.

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