Is Multitasking a Leadership Myth?
In a recent meeting with a CTO of a large IT enterprise, when asked about his team’s productivity – he said “It’s a fallacy that we’re able to multitask and do two or three or four or five things at once, just as well as we could do them if we did them one at a time. They don’t get the sense that they’re missing unexpected things because, of course, they don’t see what they’re missing”
It was a fascinating discussion about human perceptions, backed up by some thought-provoking research I read up recently. If you think of your brain as a computer, each program requires a portion of operating memory. The first program gets the most; if you don’t close that program before starting another, the computer has to make do with whatever memory is still available. So what actually happens is that activities are conducted sequentially for brief periods of time that makes it appear that they are being done simultaneously.
I found myself wondering about the implications of this for leaders in the workplace. Nearly every leader I know is swamped: hundreds of emails a day, demanding customers, understaffed departments. The pressure to produce faster, cheaper and higher quality output is never-ending. So is it any surprise that a leader might turn to multi-tasking in an attempt at getting more done?
A McKinsey Global Institute study found that employees spend 28% of their workweek checking emails. Bain, another consulting firm in 2017, found that in a sample of large firms, managers spent 15% of their time in meetings, with senior managers spending an average three days a week in meetings.
The concept of multitasking has its own pros and cons. However, if it’s done in the right manner, it can be quite beneficial. It is not about squeezing out more and more activities during the day, but what you put into your day that is more important.
I won't pretend to be an expert at this, but there are a few tactics and habits I've heard from successful CXOs and want to share them with leaders like you to be more attentive and empathetic.
- Preparing A To-Do List:
Start by making a list of tasks you need to accomplish during the day. It is preferably better if you write them down in your diary or desk pad. Most successful leaders believe written goals are much better than unwritten ones, as they offer you more clarity and also help you to focus your attention. By doing so, you can stay focused and on top of your game at work.
- Superhero Time:
University of California has researched that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after an interruption. Think about how many 23 minute chunks get wasted when you rapidly switch between tasks as you’re multitasking. In other words it’s called “context switching.”
So the next time, whether you are designing a presentation or writing an important email, set aside an uninterrupted block of time (known in the productivity world as a pomodoro). You’ll save a lot of time that was previously consumed by context switching. Make sure to set a clear goal (or clear milestones) you want to achieve by the end of the block of time.
For the last few years, mindfulness has been getting a lot of attention. It means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. But for leaders, the biggest benefit of mindfulness is its direct impact on the development of emotional intelligence.
Marshall Goldsmith, a self-described ‘philosophical Buddhist’, often associates leadership and success in business with lofty ideas such as happiness, meaning and mindfulness.
Our minds are often thinking about regrets, incidents from the past and worries about the future. Any tool that brings the mind back to the present moment is a mindfulness tool. It is about being more in the present and thereby being able to do everything with more discipline and focus.
- Airplane mode:
Text messages and emails might seem harmless, but they can drag your attention away from the task at hand. Set yourself and your devices on airplane mode (especially when working on tasks that demand your laser sharp focus). Otherwise called a time-lock strategy, it helps personal productivity shoot up 40 to 60%.
And, if you really do want to check your social media or personal emails, batch it up in your day instead of snacking on it throughout. Choose the fulfilment of unitasking over the short pleasures of multitasking, and you’ll feel better for it.
In conclusion, simple steps like these can be quite handy in enabling multitasking in the most efficient manner. It is not only crucial for leaders to be able to multitask well but also to do that in a smart, collaborative way.