June 14, 2011 | Barb Carr

Career Development: Are You a Multi-Tasker?

A recent Weekly Wisdom quote:

To do two things at once is to do neither. ~ Publius Syrus

made me think about what I’m really doing when I multi-task:  many things at once, but none very well.

The ability to multi-task in a fast-paced environment while maintaining an emphasis on quality sounds like a desirable trait for the workplace.  In fact, it is one of the most requested job skills.  But is it truly desirable?  Does “multitasking” really help us get the job done?  Not according to research.

Interruptions hinder our ability to process information, and this is bad news since the average office worker is interrupted every 11 minutes:

“… researchers found that the employees devoted an average of just 11 minutes to a project before the ping of an e-mail, the ring of the phone or a knock on the cubicle pulled them in another direction. Once they were interrupted, it took, on average, a stunning 25 minutes to return to the original task–if they managed to do so at all that day.” (TIME)

Multi-tasking is not really doing more than one thing at once, it is actually switching attention from one thing to another very rapidly so that it seems like more than one thing is getting done simultaneously.  Similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain so it is impossible to do them at the same time.  Even if the tasks are not at all similar, they can still overwhelm the brain when we try to do too many at one time.

How can you maintain efficiency during the day?  Here are 3 easy tips:

1.      Follow the 80/20 rule.  Use the first 1.5 hours or so (20%) of your day concentrating on the most critical task, and you will enjoy progress even though distractions come later. (Checking e-mail does not qualify as a concentrative task!)

2.      Speaking of e-mail, don’t reply to an e-mail if it is not necessary.  Even a simple “thanks” can start a chain of time-consuming e-mails that are disruptive, not productive.

3.      Work for 10 minutes every day on that nagging task you dread.  One of two things will happen:  1) After the first 10 minutes you’ll decide to continue and finish it up for good or 2) you will finish a little each day – but you will finish much sooner than if you keep procrastinating.

Sometimes by doing less, we may accomplish even more.  A little focus can go a long way in getting the work done!

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