The dangers of multi-tasking

A couple of weeks ago, frustrated that I had made little recent progress on my eternally ‘almost finished’ book, I blocked out three days and marked them in the diary as if they were external meetings. I told  colleagues and friends what I was doing to help cut down on unnecessary calls – usually I get lots of Skype  calls throughout the day. The real test came when I had two requests to meet clients during the allocated days (Sod’s Law). I decided to hold firm and (without saying I was working on the book) explained that I couldn’t make the chosen times. Both people suggested alternative dates. Normally I would have just forgone the writing time and accepted the initial suggested meeting timing.  As a result of my standing firm I manged to finish the first draft of the book. I know that would not have happened otherwise.

During those 3 days, I only checked my email at the beginning and end of the day – and used my phone or iPad to do this so I could avoid getting hijacked once I was working on the book on my Mac. I kept my browser closed and only went online (again via my iPad) to fact check when needed. I was amazed at how much I got done – averaging 3000 words a day plus a lot of editing and research.

This afternoon I was reading a piece on information overload, from The McKinsey Quarterly and it rang a lot of bells for me. Today was a classic multi-tasking, always-online, kind of day (including reading the McKinsey piece which I came across while browsing my Twitter stream) and I got done only a fraction of what I wanted to do, despite having no client meetings and only a couple of calls to distract me.

I realise now it was because I was trying to work on several tasks at once and failing to give enough attention to any of them. The McKinsey piece explains why multi tasking , far from being a virtue, can actually be bad for you in terms of productivity, creativity and wellbeing.

It refers to recent research in which participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence.

The same article references a Harvard Business School study among 9000 individuals which showed that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person. That certainly mirrors my own experience.

On top of that multi- tasking also creates anxiety and lowers job satisfaction. So much for us women thinking we had an inherent advantage in being able to multi task better than men!

In this digital, always on age, where we rarely venture forth without a smart phone and where we are always connected and reachable, it’s worth taking stock every now and then and thinking about disconnecting, even if only for blocks of time. I’m also going to do my work in sequence rather than grass-hoppering about between projects and tasks.

I’ll let you know how I get on!

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4 responses to “The dangers of multi-tasking

  1. Great article Clare and so true. It’s all about focus at the end of the day. do you remember when they use to train us at P&G to have just one piece of paper on your desk at a time, boy does that help you to focus!

    • Good point Sean – it was handle each piece of paper once – and get it out of your in-tray! If I didn’t feel inclined or ready to act at once I tended to write “Pend” and date at least 2 weeks ahead to get it out of the tray. Procrastination? When it re-emerged on due date I’d repeat “Pend” for a further few weeks – but at least it kept it out of the pile and often after the allotted time it had past its sell by date anyway!
      These days things just lurk unanswered in the email inbox – and I always reckon if they are really important you’ll remember or the other person will!

  2. Great post, Clare, and so true. I try to ask myself every morning: What are the three things I really need to focus on today? Then try to stick just to doing those. Focus is the key, I think. Good luck with taming the grass-hopper!

  3. I love the idea of focusing on just 3 things in a day!
    Doing that could be transformative! I am convinced that we all spend far much time reacting to other people’s agendas instead of proactively focusing on our own. If we started each day with just 3 things it could make a massive difference – I’m going to try that – starting tomorrow – the first being ‘drive to Suffolk for a weekend with friends’!

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