It’s 10:20 A.M. With just ten minutes before your 10:30 meeting, you still have time to wrap up a few loose ends. Then the phone rings. While on the call, you quickly read an e-mail from a member of your team and type a response, and then print the last few pages of your presentation. Before you know it, it’s time to head out for that meeting, and you rush out of your office patting yourself on the back for accomplishing a lot in only ten minutes. During the meeting, you check incoming messages on your BlackBerry while following along and psyching yourself up mentally for your presentation.
As a manager, the above situation probably sounds familiar. On any given day, you no doubt find yourself pulled in several different directions simultaneously. And, because there aren’t necessarily enough hours in the day to accomplish everything, you find yourself multitasking.
When used appropriately, multitasking can be an effective method for increasing productivity without decreasing the quality of your work. There are certainly times when diving into an issue, assessing the problem and coming up with a solution quickly is the appropriate method.
However, as we become more and more dependent on multitasking to get us through the day, the question arises: are we devoting enough time to the issues that require our attention or are we jumping from one task to another so quickly that we aren’t giving anything the proper amount of consideration? And, are the very tools intended to help us accomplish more in less time – laptops, cell phones, e-mail, BlackBerrys – actually slowing us down and deteriorating the quality of our work?
Studies show that when workers constantly switch between tasks, they actually accomplish less than they would have if they had worked on one thing at a time. Even more alarming, constant multitasking increases stress levels and can have a negative effect on workers’ concentration and their ability to focus and produce good work. This lowers productivity, quality of work and can lead to burn-out – a challenge to employers everywhere who are hoping to retain their top people.
Fortunately, Adecco has some practical strategies you can incorporate into your daily routine to help you effectively multitask by making the best use of your time and technology.
Use technology – don’t let it use you.
Most managers have any number of electronic devices at their fingertips. The question is, are you using them to their fullest ability? E-mail, for instance, is an excellent communication tool with the potential to do more than most of us currently ask of it. Often, office e-mail programs such as Microsoft Outlook enable users to set up a system that automatically sorts messages as they arrive. It acts as an e-assistant and leaves the inbox uncluttered by prioritizing messages. In addition, task lists and e-reminders can play a significant role in time management. Also, consider an e-messaging system that allows key members of your team to communicate with you instantly. This will cut down on the number of e-mails you receive.
Got a BlackBerry? If you do, chances are good that your BlackBerry goes off during dinner with your family, while you’re enjoying a night out with friends or in the middle of your kid’s soccer game. Not to mention when you’re knee-deep in reports or busy meeting with other executives. So, what can you do? Simply turning the device off might not be feasible, but carrying a separate cell phone that serves as a way to contact you in case of an emergency situation will allow you to focus on the matter in front of you – whether it’s personal or professional – and leave the rest for review later.
Become a master of time management.
Another great way to cut back on multitasking is to find a little extra time in your schedule for those projects that require your full attention. While you may feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, finding more time in your day is possible if you’re ultra-organized. So, label everything. Create and label a new file as soon as you get paperwork related to a new assignment. Likewise, when you jot down notes on a project, be sure to add them to the related file immediately. You’ll save a lot of time just by knowing where things are and not having to search for them.
Schedule a time each day to go through your mail. And, when you sit down to review your mail –whether in your e-inbox or your regular inbox – decide how to deal with it immediately. Either complete it, pass it on to a member of your team, set aside a specific time to handle it by entering it into your calendar or adding it to your task list, or give it the old “heave-ho” via the delete key or the circular file. This allows you to move on to tasks that require more of your concentration, and, although it may take a few minutes up front, you’ll save yourself more time in the long run.
Make time to wear your “thinking cap.”
The main downside to multitasking and our reliance on technology is that we don’t often have enough time to focus in on an issue and really analyze it from all angles. Admittedly, not all of the work you do requires this level of attention, but some of it does. For instance, perhaps there’s an employee on your team who needs your input, or maybe you’re working on a project that needs a creative solution. Either way, it’s unlikely you’ll give the employee or the project the attention they deserve if you’re focusing on several other things at the same time.
That’s where “thinking time” comes in. Throughout Corporate America, more and more executives are taking the morning or the afternoon or even the entire day “off” from everything except the major issues on their desk. It’s as simple as setting up an away message on your e-mail system, closing your office door and putting your phone on “do not disturb.” Taking time to really concentrate on a project or issue can yield higher-quality results than if you attempt to handle it while in the midst of e-mailing, instant messaging and talking on the phone.
If you can’t manage even an hour or two once or twice a week to work uninterrupted, try arriving at the office an hour or so earlier than everyone else. You’ll have time to devote your undivided attention to whatever project you feel needs your full concentration and you won’t be as tired or rushed as you would if it were the end of the day. Likewise, providing key employees with time to do the same is a great way to demonstrate that you value their thinking skills as much as their ability to meet deadlines. Remember, for all of their sophistication, our modern devices still can’t replace the human brain.
It’s up to you.
Clearly, there are times when multitasking is the most efficient way to work, just as there are times when it is not. Limiting the number of distractions you experience on a daily basis can result in higher productivity and a higher quality of work. Ultimately, however, you’re the only person who can ensure that you are multitasking effectively and getting the most out of your time, so be prepared to turn off your BlackBerry, shut-down the laptop or leave your office for a little while. Sometimes, just taking a few moments to interact with your employees or family and friends – or to think about a project without interruptions – can make a huge difference in the quality of work you do, and the time it takes you to do it.