I’m on a scrum call right now. I’m not a developer or a business analyst and I’m not formally Agile trained. But I do officially lead an IT process and therefore participate in these daily calls. I attend at a high level, mostly to see what’s happening and stay informed. Some days I participate actively. Other days I just listen. I mostly try to turn my camera on and at least appear like I’m engaged. Key word: appear.
All that said, in the last 20 minutes while on this call, I’ve answered a few emails, checked my calendar, and frantically searched my bookshelf for a book I want to reference in this article. I didn’t find it. Honestly, that has the most of my attention. Where did I put that book?
Beyond all of that, in the back of my mind are the back-to-back meetings I have all day today, what I need to do to prepare for each of them, the five resumes I need to review for an open position that needed to be filled long ago, coordinating a big network change with large impact, trying to figure out how I’ll pick my groceries up today (please let there not be traffic or a wait), the fact that I need to start a load of laundry, my bed isn’t made, what will we have for dinner, and it goes on and on. I actually tried to attend two virtual meetings at work this week. I failed but I gave it a good college try.
Multitasking is a badge of honor. We wear it like a first-place ribbon at the fair. I think women especially feel like we have to do it. After all, the song told us we had to bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan.
The book I was looking for, and eventually found, is Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being, a lovely book by Dr. Beth Cabrera. The book is filled with research-based data about how to effectively balance career and family. While it’s aimed at women, it is fitting for anyone. I had this book on my mind because Dr. Cabrera specifically addresses multitasking, saying that we should absolutely avoid it. She cites a study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, entitled Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching, that found that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40 percent when you switch between tasks. That means multitasking is not helping us do more, it is actually causing us to do less.
Multitasking is not helping us do more. It is actually causing us to do less.
A Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass, found that chronic multitaskers were actually worse at sorting relevant and irrelevant information. He even found that when a multitasker is focusing only on one task their brains were less efficient and effective. So not only is multitasking not effective, it impairs the brain function going forward. Over time, multitasking actually makes us lose cognitive ability. That’s scary!
I know this data. I believe it to be true, and yet here I am still trying to do five things at once every working day of my life. Some researchers say it is because we are bored or because we are impatient. Others say that it is because it is just too easy to switch between things (how may tabs are open in your browser right now?) Regardless, it is a habit that needs breaking.
So how do we do it? First, you have to recognize it and commit to stopping. That said, I’m now days later approaching this article with my full attention. I spent some time looking for ways to break the habit of multitasking. Here are the ones I’m trying:
Remove distractions. To write this article I closed all the other windows on my computer and silenced my phone. Constantly watching email come in on another monitor or your watch disturbing you with every message is counterproductive. I love my Apple watch. I really do. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked down at an alert and been thrown completely off track because of just reading the subject line of an email. Turn the alerts off and only retrieve mail and text messages when you set aside time for that specifically.
When possible, finish one thing at a time. This is hard, as most of us have multiple projects going all the time. If that’s the case, break things up into chunks and work through a chunk at a time. Commit to 20-minute chunks of work. I’ve told myself that I’ll work straight for 20 minutes then check in and decide if I can work another 20 minutes. Sometimes I work through. Sometimes I take a short walk. No matter what though, I’m committed to 20 minutes.
Create realistic or even tight deadlines for yourself. Spend some time getting really skilled at estimating completion times. Aim for giving yourself just enough time to get something done without any wiggle room. With too little time, you’ll get frustrated. With too much time, you’ll allow yourself to be distracted. Work toward being a pro at knowing how long it will actually take you to do something. Make it a game. Learn from yourself.
Practice defensive calendaring. If you are in meetings all day, every day, you cannot get other work done. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. It is something that creeps back up on me, too. I have a hard time saying no so I tend to accept every meeting that requests me there. I know it is out of control when I have five meetings on my calendar for the same time slot. That actually happened this week, thus the trying to attend two at once. When that happens, and it does, it is time for me to step back and ask if I really need to be in everything. Who can I send in my place? What are my priorities? I block lunches every day because lunch is important to me. I need that down time in the middle of the day (and I love to eat). I block Monday mornings for planning, and I block as much of Friday as I can to wrap things up, finish anything lingering, and reflect on the week. It doesn’t always work, but it is definitely better than letting anyone and everyone put meetings on my calendar anytime they want, filling up the whole calendar.
Communicate. Communicating is important for a lot of reasons and should be done in many ways. For the record, I believe communication is the answer to almost any issue. I dare you to challenge me on this one. In this subject, you should communicate to your team, both up and down, what you’re trying to do. Let people know that you are setting a goal to focus more and be more productive. Let them know how you’re controlling your calendar and that it is important to you to not have interruptions. This doesn’t mean you are unavailable to your team. It means you structure that time. If your team sees they’re getting your full attention during the time you give them, then they’ll understand you giving you full attention elsewhere when it isn’t their time.
Be present. Finally, I encourage you to really engage. Give yourself permission to be in the moment. Don’t let your need to get everything done cause you to miss what’s happening right now. Life is short. Be there for it.
This is a work in progress for me. I know what to do but don’t always do it. Evidence of that is how I started this article. I finished it the right way though. I feel much better about the work I did now. You will, too!
Vicki Rogers has more than 20 years of IT experience and is currently the Senior Manager of Change at Georgia Tech Previously, she was a senior IT manager at Amtrak and the service desk manager at the University of West Georgia. She has expertise in service management, change management, leadership development, and diversity in IT. She has been involved in service desk creation, implementation, and adoption of ITSM best practices, as well as insourcing IT. Vicki has a BBA in Business Management, an MBA, and an EdS in Learning, Leadership, and Organizational Development. Her graduate research involved cultivating and developing women leaders in higher education IT divisions. Vicki is a regular national speaker on leadership, service management, diversity, and change. Outside of work and school, Vicki is the mom of two brilliant and successful college girls and one very spoiled schnauzer. Follow Vicki on Twitter @vickirogers.