The answer to
our multitasking dilemma is to take a conscious, analytical
approach. We need to allow the disruptions that add speed,
but avoid the ones that detract from it. A basic
psychological premise states that some stimulation or arousal
increases our productivity, but too much reduces it.
Gloria Marks, a researcher at the University of California,
relates the principal directly to multitasking: "You
would expect that a certain amount of multitasking would
increase arousal, perhaps leading to greater efficiency.
But too much will produce declining performance." To
simplify our lifestyles and cut back on unnecessary drag, we
have to take control over what interruptions we accept and when
we choose to accept them--when to multitask and when to focus.
The first step
is to evaluate the importance of each task and decide whether to
let it be interrupted. Is the interruption more important
than the current task? Is it worth a half-hour's lost
productivity? This may seem a no-brainer, but we don't
always take the time to apply priorities to interruptions.
In a recent survey, 55 percent of workers said they opened
incoming email almost immediately, regardless of how busy they
were. But if we consciously assess the importance of the
interruption and decide it's worth the switch, our behavior and
results will more accurately reflect our priorities.
about multitasking, ask yourself whether it's best to stay fully
engaged in the activity at hand.
If your child is
telling you about his day in school and you get a text message on
your cell phone, you should probably resist the urge to check the
message immediately; your child takes priority. But if
you're working on a long-term project and a client emails you with
an urgent question, your general productivity, work relationships,
and well-being probably won't be compromised if you accept the
interruption--in fact, they could suffer if you choose to ignore
it. Being conscious of these distinctions helps us to reap
the benefits that come with being fully engaged in moments of
significance--whether those moments are meetings with clients,
conversations with friends, or experiences with family--without
relinquishing the benefits of multitasking.
Next, we need to
examine the total number of interruptions we allow and how often
we multitask. Researchers at the University of Oregon found
that our memories are compromised when we let constant
interruptions distract us. The brain's memory and
organization centers can be damaged when flooded by stress
hormones--a common reaction to multitasking or
interruptions. By juggling too many tasks or allowing too
many distractions, you condition your brain to stay overstimulated,
weakening your ability to concentrate. Not only is
productivity (and therefore speed) compromised, but so is valuable
skill--being engaged when it can benefit you.
Finally, we need
to assess what kinds of tasks we're trying to perform
simultaneously. Multitasking is a good option only if what
we're doing is unimportant or simple enough that the decreased
brainpower (remember, it's cut in half when we do two things at
once) won't negatively affect our productivity or results.
To handle more than one complex task at a time, the brain, because
of its inherent information processing limitations, simply must
slow down. Otherwise, errors multiply and we end up taking
twice as long, or longer, to complete each task. One task
dominates the other in terms of brain function and attention, so
we're not really doing two things at once, we're just toggling
between the two tasks--each interrupting the other.
In the workplace,
excessive multitasking and unexamined interruptions hurt
productivity. So what can organizations do to avoid
slowdowns? Find ways to help employees take a step back and
focus, when they need to, and devote time to the high-value work
you want them to do. Some companies designate time each
week, each month, or each quarter for work only: no
meetings, no expectations for immediate response, no
pop-ins. Dow Corning sets aside one meeting-free week each
quarter. IBM reserves time on Fridays for employees to focus
on work they might otherwise have to complete outside regular work
hours. If such time is to be used effectively, interruptions
must be kept to a minimum. Doors should be closed, employees
should refrain from checking emails every five minutes (unless
it's essential to the job), and nobody should be stopping by to
share information that could be provided in an email or at another
succeed in today's ever-accelerating world, speed is the
name of the game. Forget "slow and steady wins
the race." The key to getting ahead is not
fighting or hiding from speed, but embracing speed and
using its power to your advantage. As Vince Poscente
demonstrates in this rewarding and, yes, fast-paced book,
speed has a unique ability to enrich your life. He
empowers you to take control of your time, your tasks,
your priorities, and your talents, and start making life
everything you want it to be.