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The Multi-Tasking Effect
Is multi-tasking making leaders less intelligent?
For leaders who want to get things done, the belief that multi-tasking is the only way to do it is a common one. And with so many distractions around you, doing more than one thing at once is almost unavoidable.
But the expectation that leaders must be able to multi-task contrasts strongly against the belief that you must be 100% focused.
Simple maths tells you that you can’t be 100% focused on one thing if you’re actually focused on 3 things at the same time.
The challenge is that mono-tasking (focusing on a single task at once) requires deep focus, discipline, and self-management. It’s arguably harder to focus on one thing rather than focus on five.
In the immediate term, hopping between different tasks feels like you’re getting more done. It might make you feel productive. Or that you’re in control of more.
But flitting your mental energy between multiple tasks takes its toll. Every time you switch back and forth between tasks you need to re-focus and adjust.
And this ‘task switch cost’ is unavoidable.
For some roles, trades and professions multi-tasking will be the norm. But for many leaders, how you work and how you get things done, is within your gift.
The key perhaps is to use your time intentionally, rather than letting multitasking - or mono-tasking - become your single default setting.
To help you reflect on which approach best works for you, and when, here are this week’s thought provokers.
Meantime if you haven’t already, feel free to hit the button below:
Watch: This 2-minute 46-second clip of the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explaining how multi-tasking plays out in your brain, and how to do it better.
Map it: Some jobs and tasks will better suit a multi-tasking approach, whereas others may require 100% focus. The key is to make the decision strategically rather than defer to multi-tasking as your default.
Think about the tasks that you need to do today.
What tasks require 100% focus and better suit mono-tasking?
What areas of your work do you feel more able to spread your focus?
What two things can you do to better align your mental energy and time to reflect the above?
Reflect: Think back to a recent day when you logged off and felt satisfied with what you’d achieved.
What had you achieved that day?
How had you structured your work between multi-tasking and mono-tasking?
What needs to be in place to give you more of that in the future?
Stats: In his piece for Inc, Geoffery James pulls together research that argues, well, that multi-tasking is actually reducing your intelligence. Multi-taskers score 11% lower on standard comprehension than those focused on a single task, and merely sitting next to someone who is multi-tasking reduces your own comprehension by 17%. What’s your view?
Meetings: Pioneers in remote working, Gitlab, empower their team members to be the manager of their attention in meetings and have a rule that “it’s completely acceptable to work on other tasks if (a particular portion of) a meeting doesn't apply to you.” This flies in the face of long-held business expectations that if you’re in a meeting, you should be ‘in’ the meeting. But it arguably better reflects the reality of day-to-day work.
What rules exist in your business about multi-tasking in meetings?
How closely does this match what happens in reality?
Scale: The approach by Gitlab fits with the culture of their business. Think about the culture of your business.
What spoken and unspoken expectations exist in your business around multi-tasking versus mono-tasking?
What tone do you and your leadership team/Board set for others?
Where is it acceptable to multi-task and where is mono-tasking encouraged?
Last Week’s Issue: A State Of Burnout
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