Finding a balance between multi and uni-tasking

It’s a very normal part of today’s work environment to be cycling through multiple tasks and thought streams in quick succession. Often this rush can feel invigorating but sometimes it’s just plain overwhelming and stressful. By Kate Kearins.

Recently, as I waited for the phone to ring for a pre-arranged call, I found myself skimming the weekly update email to staff, checking numbers on a budget and answering a couple of staff queries while prepping for a post-work meeting, all the time feeling quietly thankful several other meetings had been cancelled from my diary that day.  
It’s a very normal part of today’s work environment to be cycling through multiple tasks and thought streams in quick succession. Often this rush can feel invigorating but sometimes it’s just plain overwhelming and stressful.
While we might think all this juggling is helping us manage multiple, conflicting demands, the micro-seconds as we switch tasks, recalibrating priorities and changing focus, has been said to amount to a 10-point drop in our IQ. That’s equivalent to losing a night’s sleep or twice the effect of smoking marijuana, according to one study. Instead of being boosted, our productivity apparently drops 40 percent.
Catching himself sending emails to a client while on a conference call for a not-for-profit board meeting, leadership coach Peter Bregman experimented with a week-long multi-tasking ban.
Bregman made a number of discoveries during that period.
He was more present for children and for life in general. He made significant progress on some challenging projects. His stress levels dropped dramatically. His tolerance for wasted time, including long meetings and meandering conversations, evaporated. But he gained more patience for things that were useful and enjoyable – discussions with his wife and brainstorming a difficult problem.
 Bregman found no downside but admits it is very hard to resist multitasking – we actually get a wee dopamine hit from it. His suggestions included working at times with the minimum number of distractions – he developed a habit of writing at 6am.
I’m fond of occasionally clearing the decks – literally. Everything other than the task I’m working on goes on to the floor. I only allow one window open on my screen when I am doing a tricky research or writing task. Or I take myself away to a location away from distractions.  
It might be something to ponder if you’re considering an office refurbishment. When Auckland law firm Meredith Connell went to a more open-plan layout in its new offices, it was to allow for more collaboration and discussion among staff. But it also created spaces for quiet work, including a library that was a no-go zone for beeping technology, chatter or meetings.
Bregman also gave himself tough deadlines to crunch through his work. “Interestingly, because multitasking is so stressful, single-tasking to meet a tight deadline will actually reduce your stress. In other words, giving yourself less time to do things could make you more productive and relaxed,” he observed.
Clearly, there are times we need to multitask. And it’s not just folding the washing while watching something on Netflix.
Harvard Business Review author David Silverman says multitasking is inescapable for anyone in a senior role. Like circus plate spinners, multitasking leaders are working to keep multiple projects and people moving. An obsession with uni-tasking can lead to staff being held up while they wait for your input or decision, says Silverman.
And, he adds, dropping one task in favour of another can refresh our thinking.
“Sometimes it’s good to butt your head against a task that is challenging. And sometimes it’s good to walk away, do something else, and let your subconscious ponder the ponderable. When you return 25 minutes later, maybe you’ll reach a better solution than you would have if you’d just stuck it out.”
So somewhere between uni-tasking and multitasking there’s a balance: a balance between helping others get stuff done and getting stuff done yourself. Then there’s the age-old advice of doing the hard things that require concentration early when you are fresh (presuming you are a ‘morning’ person, of course).  Whatever the case, distractions will always be an excuse for not doing things you don’t like.

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology.

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