An Exercise in Consciousness
Vince Poscente


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.

For decisions 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 time.

To 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.

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In a culture that sometimes equates work with suffering, it is
revolutionary to suggest that the best inward sign of vocation
is deep gladness--revolutionary but true.  If a work is mine to
do, it will make me glad over the long haul, despite the difficult
days.  Even the difficult days will ultimately gladden me, because
they pose the kinds of problems that can help me grow
in a work if it is truly mine.

Parker J. Palmer
The Courage to Teach


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