How the Best Decision Makers Avoid Multitasking

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.

The Final Word on Multitasking

The debate about whether multitasking improves performance has been going on for more than a decade. Those on one side, maintain that their ability to do two, three, or even four things at once gives them an edge on the day. Those on the other side, argue that focusing on one task at a time produces a better outcome for each endeavor.

Based on interviews with hundreds of decision makers and my own experience, I’ve come down on the one-task-at-a-time side. In reviewing some brain science research, I have become even more convinced that those who claim to successfully multi-task are really deceiving themselves.

Neuroscientist, Daniel J. Levitan, author of follow site academic words list essay content writing services australia essay on euthanasia conclusion headaches from taking viagra accutane side effects on fetus medical school personal statement service aqa as english literature coursework word count 5 paragraph book essay on a wrinkle in time follow link write my papers essay questions and answers on the old man and the sea source site viagra side effects skin my best essays one sample hypothesis test example custom essay review example outline for essay reseach guide my problems essay source link buy research paper cheap accounting information systems research paper topics viagra pills for sale cheap The Organized Mind, explains it this way: “Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.”

Levitan goes on to say that, “Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel we need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented even after a short time.”

Relatedly, Torkel Klingberg, M.D., Phd., author of The Overflowing Brain, observes, “How well we manage to multi-task can be related to the information load on working memory. Often, we can do the tasks if one of them is automatic, such as walking. For an activity to be designated “automatic,” it no longer demands any activation of the frontal lobes. However, a working memory task can never be automatic, as the information it contains always has to be encoded through the continual activation of the frontal and parietal lobes. This is why it can be so difficult to do two working memory tasks at once.” In other words, you can’t attend to more than one task at the same time.

There are those who will argue that regardless of the research, they have no choice but to multi-task. “It’s the only way I can keep up,” they’ll say. Or, “My boss claims she does it and expects everyone else to do the same.” Those people have my sympathy. Well established beliefs die hard. But as Levitan puts it, “You’d think people would realize that they’re bad at multitasking and would quit. But a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by at dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they are doing great.”

So, if you can’t multi-task, how do you keep up? By focusing on one task at a time to completion or until you can’t progress due to a missing element, resource or decision. Yes, that requires concentration and the discipline to resist the temptations to do more. How do the best decision makers do this? I’ll cover that in the next post.