Jackie can answer customer calls, complete reports, text her kids and keep her eye on Facebook all at once. She may seem a bit scattered at times, but prides herself on efficiency. She also thinks people who can only focus on one task are squandering time.
Elaine is one of those people. Rather balancing five activities at the same time, Elaine is known for closing her door and disappearing into one project for two hours. Admittedly, she’s not up to date with the latest office conversations and hasn’t checked Facebook in a couple of weeks. But here’s the thing . . . Jackie works for Elaine. In fact, Elaine runs the division. Jackie’s on the front line. They’re about the same age with the similar formal educations.
So what’s the difference? The way they work and their choice of priorities. Jackie believes she can attend to several tasks at the same time. All it takes is flexibility. She’s read all the articles and posts on multitasking and thinks she has it down to a science. Elaine on the other hand, has discovered that her habit of allotting time for focus affords her the opportunity to understand the broader context of a decision or project. In the process, she produces more thoughtful outcomes.
Why the difference between Jackie and Elaine? Simply put, Elaine discovered long ago that the people in the positions she aspired to prioritize the tasks and projects before them. Then they stick with each one until it is finished. In the process, they don’t feel as scattered. They are also better able to plumb the depths of their knowledge and experience, coming up with the best solution rather than the one that’s just good enough. In return, they are perceived as wise and insightful. This, of course, has propelled them into positions of greater influence.
Multi-tasking has become a symbol of productivity in today’s workplace. If you can juggle five tasks while eating lunch and walking the dog, people are supposed to admire you. The problem is you can’t . . . and most of them don’t. As I continue the interviews for Common Sense by Friday, my forthcoming book, a consistent theme has been compartmentalization. That is the habit of setting aside defined blocks of time for completing significant projects and considering important decisions. “I’ve learned over time,” senior manager told me, that if I don’t take the time, no one will give it to me.”
So, how do you make the shift from multi-tasking to the focus and compartmentalization critical to moving up within the organization? After all, you’ll feel like you’re swimming against the tide, at least at first.
Start small – Habits are hard to break, especially when you’re proud of them. If you’re going to make better decisions and move up within the organization, the scattered thinking that results from multitasking has to go. That doesn’t mean you can extinguish this practice overnight. Incremental change will be your friend here. How about that project due at the end of the week? Rather than chunking it in with all the stuff on your plate, set aside a block of time when you can concentrate and complete it. This may feel uncomfortable at first. Your reward, however, will be better insights into the approach and solutions you need produce a more thoughtful outcome.
Set benchmarks – What’s reasonable? Try setting aside one task the first week, two tasks the second, and so on. Obviously, some ongoing tasks will still require immediate and perhaps ongoing attention. Make a list of what you do each week. Identify the projects and decisions that are good candidates for your more productive way of getting things done.
Explain yourself – Co-workers will ask, “What’s happening to you? You don’t seem to be as efficient as you used to be.” But efficiency is not the goal. It’s effectiveness that counts. Be careful about sharing too much. The other multitaskers will want to suck you back into their ranks. Say something like, “I’m just trying something a little different.” That should satisfy their curiosity. If they press, repeat the same basic response and excuse yourself to go back to work.
What about your boss? He may be used to dumping the details on you because “the multitaskers always get the stuff done.” Take him to coffee and say, “I’ve discovered that when I concentrate on one project at a time, I actually make better decisions and do more thoughtful work. So I’m getting away from trying to juggle a bunch of stuff at the same time. It’s just not as effective.” Hopefully, he will embrace this. If not, you have another decision to make.
Compartmentalize distractions – Let’s face it, much of society has become centered around FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. This includes social media, CNN updates, and the latest video downloads. You can’t just turn all this off. Besides, going “cold turkey” will make you nuts. Rather than all or nothing, set aside increasing amounts of time when you train your focus on the task or decision at hand. Then reward yourself by checking Facebook, searching Pinterest for recipes or watching cute kitty videos on YouTube. Will this transition take time? You bet. But anything worth having requires self-discipline and perseverance.
Seek insights from those who do it well – Look around, you know who those people are. They are the people you admire, the people in charge, the people to whom others turn for counsel. Outside of your workplace, you might find them in your other activities such as a place of worship, a school activity or a hobby you pursue. Make a list of them. When the opportunity presents itself, ask each one, “I admire how you’re able to make the best decisions by really focusing on the task at hand. What are your secrets for doing so?” Then get quiet, listen and learn.
Build your stamina – Changing habits is hard. But no one said the path to on-going success was easy. We are all surrounded by endless distractions and temptations. Incremental change is the key to ridding yourself of the multitasking monster. Those who do, however, are rewarded with a sense of momentum in their outcomes. They discover the value of concentration, reflection and grit. After all, it not how fast you make a decision, but the quality of the outcome. That’s what gets people promoted.
Relish the rewards – Talk to those who have vanquished multitasking and developed good habits of concentration and compartmentalization. They’ll tell you they also take time to enjoy the rewards. Ironically, they sometimes get their best insights when relaxing and reflecting. For them, taking time to focus is critical. But taking time to relax as well forms a great balance for success.