In the last post, I explained how multitasking is impossible, referencing the research of those in neuro-science. But I left you with the question, “How do the best decision makers get so much done if they don’t multitask? Over a couple of decades of interviewing and observing them, here’s what I’ve discovered:
First, they manage their energy – How much you get accomplished and how well you make decisions is directly affected by the glucose supply to which your brain has access. Too much (those two donuts with coffee), overloads your system. Too little (“I never eat breakfast.”), deprives your brain of the glucose it needs to concentrate. Physical exercise, or lack thereof, has a similar impact. I am not an expert on nutrition. Neither are most great decision makers. But they are aware of the impact certain foods and levels of exercise have on their metabolism, especially as they age. Most maintain a diet and exercise routine they have honed over time. This produces the energy they need for the busy and demanding days they work through. The next time you come in contact with someone you consider a consistently good decision-maker, ask about their diet and exercise. Listen to what they say.
Second, they have a “don’t do” list – Over the years the best decision makers have taken stock of the distractions and time wasters draining their energy and leading to the temptation to focus more than one thing at once. For most, this not a list they’ve written down. It’s more like a regimen of habits they’ve developed to deal with the environmental distractions and temptations we all face. Remember, the only way to break a bad habit is by replacing it with a more positive alternative. For instance, what’s a time suck in your life that should be replaced by something more productive? The time you save will relieve some of the pressure you feel to multitask.
Third, they say “no” more often – This is not “buzz off.” Instead, they find diplomatic ways of declining tasks, meetings, and other activities they find less that a good use of time and attention. This does not mean they are completely focused on themselves. In addition to being high achievers on the job, many are also those who contribute generously to their community. They just maintain a high expectation about time, investment and outcome. They’d rather lead the endeavor, for instance, than serve under someone who is a less-than-adequate manager.
Fourth, they put a “clock” to it – In other words, they chunk their time. Rather than simply starting a project, they consider how long the project should take to complete and then work toward that timeline. Rather than simply attending a meeting, they determine their role and work to minimize their time commitment. Rather than inviting you to sit down in their office, they’ll come to you and remain standing while the conversation takes place. As a result, they accomplish more in shorter periods of time and lessen the probability that they’ll have to double up to catch up.
Fifth, they ask, “What does a successful outcome look like?” when making decisions – In many cases, there can be more than one successful solution to an obstacle or problem. The best decision makers are careful not to get hung up on one specific outcome, if there are others just as good. They also recognize there are lots of times when good enough is good enough. Spending unnecessary time on perfection drains mental energy and wastes time. Consider a project you are working on right now or a decision you’re facing. Have you asked yourself what success will look like? Is there room for more than one successful outcome? Are you spending time perfecting something where “good enough” is solve the problem or satisfy the stakeholders involved?
Sixth, they set aside time for personal balance and recovery – During a recent interview with a business owner, the conversation turned toward balance. Her strategy? “Airplanes are my escape zone,” she said. “I read fun books. I watch a movie. I catch up on personal relationships. I chat with the person next to me. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the seat in front of me and let my thoughts take me where they will. When I deplane, I’m refreshed.” What’s your strategy for balance?
As I mentioned in the last post, all of this takes self-discipline, even enforcing time for recovery. Multitasking is not a solution. It is an obstacle to becoming the decision maker you know you can be.