Multitasking: kill it to improve leadership!

Multitasking man juggles office suppliesIt’s time to start a new support group: “Hi, my name’s Kevin, and I’m a multitasker.” During my team standup meeting, I may jot down items on my to-do list that I need to accomplish later. When attending meetings, I sometimes reply to emails while also trying to contribute to the meeting. Despite knowing that it actually decreases my productivity in the long run, I try to multitask anyway. I need help! And, I’m not alone.

Despite our misguided notions on the benefits of multitasking, research actually shows a significant mental decline when we multitask. Learn some of the facts about multitasking, why it can be harmful to you as a leader, and some ways to kill the multitasking habit when you need to.

Research on multitasking

When you think about dividing up your attention for multiple tasks at the same time, it seems like common sense that your attention would suffer. Many people will readily trade off concentration for what they deem as productivity. (I can already hear our rationalization: It doesn’t take much brain power to wade through these emails, so I can still pay attention in this meeting while I do that.) Scientists that are much smarter than I am have learned some fascinating details about just how much our brainpower suffers when multitasking.

Even I know multitasking isn't smartIn his book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, David Rock writes, “A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis. While this fact might make an interesting dinner party topic, it’s really not that amusing that one of the most common ‘productivity tools’ can make one as dumb as a stoner.

Many people assume they are unaffected mentally by multitasking. But, more people are impacted by the multitasking “intelligence tax” than you probably realize. Research by David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, indicates that only 2 percent of the population are actually “supertaskers” whose work does not deteriorate (and may even improve) with multitasking. In other words, you’re probably NOT one of them! But, don’t take my word for it. Check out the Inc. article “Cold, Hard Truth: Most People Can’t Handle Multitasking”, which includes a link to a test to determine if you’re a supertasker.


Importance of focus on leadership

HummingbirdA former manager of mine coined the phrase “hummingbird mode” to describe a state that leaders often find themselves in: constant mental motion, flying from task to task trying to get everything done. Sound familiar? I know I have that experience many days!

As a leader, you must lead your team in implementing new ideas to solve complex problems. But first, you must come up with new ideas to solve those problems. To do that, you have to learn from new data and let your brain make neural connections with information you already know. That requires concentration that is likely not available to you when you multitask. (Remember the “dumb as a stoner” quote above?)

An article called “The Kings of Concentration” in Inc. magazine explains it this way: “Only by intensely concentrating can you link new ideas and facts ‘meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory,’ [Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric] Kandel writes in his 2006 book In Search of Memory. Simply put, if you have the presence of mind to absorb new data, trends, and events–and then synthesize them with what you already know–you will be more likely to formulate the breakthrough idea.”

The understanding and application of new information is necessary as a foundation to coming up with your next big plan to lead your team to success. Don’t needlessly handicap yourself by trying to take on multiple things at once and remove your ability to really think.

How to kill the multitasking demon

Now that you have some compelling background on the perils of multitasking and how it can sometimes hinder your leadership, it’s time to make some changes. Here are some simple things you can try to stay focused on a single important task at hand.

New meeting rule: laptop closed, phone on Do Not Disturb.

I Want You to Turn Off Your Cell PhoneThis one isn’t rocket science. If your meeting requires mental presence, kill the distractions! (And, honestly, if your meeting doesn’t require your focus…why are you even there? But, that’s a topic for a different blog post.) If you really want to press your luck: see if others in the meeting will do the same!

  • Shut the laptop lid.
  • Put your cell phone on Do Not Disturb*. (No, not vibrate. Because buzz you’re still gonna buzz be distracted by buzz that vibrating text message alert! Do Not Disturb is your friend.)

* Don’t fear the Do Not Disturb setting: you can always set your phone to allow certain calls to still come in. Here are instructions for iPhone and for Android 5.0 Lollipop.

Set up your own focus time and kill the distractions

If most of your day is unavoidably spent jumping from task to task or doing a couple of things at once, compensate! Slot yourself some time to focus without distractions. When I wrote about success strategies for the introvert manager, I wrote some tips on scheduling some solo thinking time and getting in your “think time” after hours.

  • Reduce the interruptions from people. If you’re tempted to chat with others as a distraction to your work, find a space to yourself. If your desk location tempts people to stop by and interrupt you, pick an alternate location. Borrow somebody else’s desk or office, or book an empty conference room.
  • Reduce the interruptions from software. Whether you’re at your desk focusing or taking notes on your laptop in a meeting, shut down any software distractions to allow yourself to concentrate. Close down your email, instant messaging software, social media sites, and anything else that would tempt you to switch gears during your task. (Putting your phone on Do Not Disturb will be helpful here as well.) Seeing or hearing that new message alert turns us into a multitasking monster. A brain-impaired, dumb-as-a-stoner multitasker. Don’t do it!

One step at a time for thinking one task at a time!

Leaders have hectic days filled with varying duties. Multitasking is sometimes inevitable. However, as a leader, you must recognize the importance of focused concentration time. Reduce multitasking distractions whenever possible so you can properly focus on the task at hand. Your organization depends on you to formulate the brilliant plans for your team to execute. Don’t hinder your abilities by needlessly multitasking. Thinking isn’t easy work as it is! Henry Ford said it well: “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.”

Henry Ford quotation about thinking

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