Why You Need To Stop Multitasking

Yes, yes, I’m listening … Oh no, you’re not! Multitasking has left us drained, depleted, and ultimately LESS PRODUCTIVE. Down tools, or at least use them one at a time, says ANTONIA HART

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was on the phone to a medical consultant a couple of weeks ago when she interrupted herself: “I just have to send a message, sorry, hang on there.” I listened to the distant tap, tap, tap, whoosh that told me an email was leaving her building. What had happened there, during our phone consultation? As she advised me, was she reading her incoming mail and formulating a response, deciding it had to go before our five-minute call was over? As she answered my questions, had she suddenly remembered an unsent mail, and felt on balance now was the best time to compose and send it? If it were an urgent medical query, didn’t it warrant her whole attention? As a patient, didn’t I? Our exchange, and her absence from it, left me disgruntled, but of course I’m frequently as guilty as she was of trying to do more than one thing at a time. Do we shortchange others because of it? Are we shortchanging ourselves? Will 2017 be a more productive, calmer year if we can relearn the skills required to focus?

Multitasking feels like one massive con. It doesn’t mean you achieve many things at once. It usually means a lot of fussing about at the wrong tasks and failing to give adequate focus to the task of highest priority. It happens at every level, from those who are unable to set their phone down during a meeting (or date) for fear of missing a Facebook, email, Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram update, to members of senior management teams trying to do 30 work-related tasks in a day that can realistically accommodate five. Research carried out at the University of Sussex showed that people who engaged in tech multitasking at a fairly everyday level – sending texts while watching television and tweeting, or flitting about the web while on the phone to their mum – had less grey matter than those who didn’t. (Other academic studies have found that this kind of multitasking decreases your memory, shortens your attention span and makes it harder for you to achieve focus when you do eventually slip your now boiling hot phone back into its case.)

The social media, communications and technology traps are ones of which we’re all aware. Who among us has not resolved to look less at their phone? Lately, there’s a string of apps and other software that you can use to impose discipline on your working time if it’s too hard to do it alone. Write or Die will delete text you’ve already written if you don’t keep going; you can use Freedom and Self-Control to block internet access while you work. Activating the Big Red Stop app is a bit like putting up a digital Do Not Disturb sign: during whatever time period you specify – half an hour, a week – it sends a message in reply to texts, emails or other notifications, letting your contact know that you’re having a break but will get back to them after 5.30pm, or Tuesday week. All the messages are there when you pick up your phone again, but in the interim, as Big Red Stop says, you can reclaim your mental space, and concentrate on being in your moment. This kind of language will be music to Paula King’s ears. King is a psychologist and executive coach, and director of the career training and development institution Kingstown College. She explains that from a neuro-scientific point of view, multitasking is only possible when you’re using the procedural part of the brain (the basal ganglia), the part that’s engaged when you’re effectively on autopilot.

“And even then, you’re not really multitasking, you’re multi-switching, flicking from one thing to another,” she says. “That’s why you can be stirring your spaghetti sauce, chatting on the phone and overseeing the homework: because you don’t need to be innovative while you’re doing those things. You’ve done them a thousand times and your brain just follows existing neural pathways.” But at work, or doing something significant which requires you to be innovative, flexible and creative, you need your brain to be up to a bit more than trotting along ready-made routes. “You have to be creating new neural pathways if you’re to work at your full potential. To allow that to happen you have to be focused. You have to be fully engaged.” And, as you’ll know if you’ve ever addressed a Leinster fan during the final of the Heineken Cup, when someone is deeply engaged with something, they don’t surface from that deep well of concentration to do anything else. They don’t multitask. They don’t actually even blink.

The thing is, a busy head doesn’t equal a productive head. For all the talk about how our overstretched lives leave us time-poor, in fact it’s not time we lack, but mental space, or mental stillness which could allow focus to take over.  “You have to stop and focus,” Paula King says, “or some day you’ll wake up stressed, unhappy, unfulfilled and madly busy but unproductive.” Geoff Pelham of UK company PB Coaching coaches people in senior management positions, many of whom come to him feeling stressed or overloaded. I met him when he was in Dublin, running a course at UCD’s Smurfit Business School, and asked him about the difficulties multitasking presents.

“People come to me saying they can’t cope with the amount of work they have. I help them reflect on how they’re going about things. Often people are just trying to do too much at one time. Maybe they have issues around delegation, either they don’t really know how, or they don’t want to burden others. Maybe they have issues around perfectionism, they want everything perfect and get bogged down in detail, or they can’t trust others to do something properly.” He points out that often people rise to management positions through having excelled as a specialist in a particular field. “They’re used to being in control, to being good at their job, to being the one who can do everything. Now the job is suddenly about managing people, influencing others, and they’re out of their comfort zone. But being a successful manager means bringing people on board, it doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. You have to manage the anxiety that not everything will be done by you, when you want and how you want.”

If you’re going to regain your sense of control, of course the first hurdle is to identify everything on your plate and prioritise. There will be cases where you need to extend a timescale, or draft in an extra person, to keep things manageable, and there’s nothing wrong with this. Better to flag things up now and deal with them than end up horribly embarrassed, or worse, later on. Pelham recommends clients themselves develop a coaching mindset. “When someone stops you in the corridor and says they have a problem, the quickest solution is to say either ‘Do this’ or ‘Leave it with me, I’ll deal with it’. Instead, think about saying to that person ‘What’s going on? What could you do?’. By doing this you avoid multiplying your own tasks, you equip the person to act for themselves, you reduce the chance of it happening again.” Effectively, you have given the person a mini-coaching session, encouraged them to retain responsibility and develop their skills. And you haven’t increased the number of things you have to do that day.

It all sounds doable, simply to decide to change the way you work. Prioritise. Bring your focus to the most important task in your list. Complete it as well as possible. Move on to the next. As for me, I’m closing my office door now. I may open it on Tuesday week. Whether I am having a nap, or engaging my laser-focus in a richly productive monotasking session, only I will ever know.

Antonia Hart

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