Multitasking: Leader or Loser?


Can we really perform multiple tasks simultaneously?

We as leaders feel the pressure to do multiple tasks at the same time, but are we enhancing our productivity or wasting time?

Neurological researchers identify “brown outs” in the brain during multi-tasking, a term associated with the loss of some of the brain’s computing power.  This “brown out” condition leaves room for surface learning only, and increases the chances of mistakes.

The reality is that we as leaders increasingly have to do more with less. This means we must learn how to multitask effectively.

Inefficient & Less Effective

I, like most of my peers, have my cell phone beside me so I can respond to texts while I am writing this blog article, simultaneously monitoring my 4 email addresses and periodically adding to a PowerPoint presentation for my next consulting assignment.

Too Much MultitaskingI am passionate about what I do, And in living this passion, I am a moderate-level multi-tasker who is surrounded by technologies that allow me to feel somewhat powerful.

In fact, because I multitask regularly, I have reached a level of proficiency.  Or have I?

As our leadership responsibilities grow, we try to achieve more things simultaneously, often “flying by the seat of our pants” to get everything done.

In one specific example, as a result of the alarmingly negative scientific findings on the human ability to multi-task, state-wide laws have restricted cell phone use while driving.

Ask yourself this: What is your first response when your phone signals you have a text message while you are driving home from work? As a fellow driver, I hope you are waiting at stop light while reading that text!

ADHDOff the road, who doesn’t respond to an instant message while on a conference call?  The compulsion to rapidly switch between posting on Facebook, tweeting and emailing your business colleagues is something most leaders feel is a requirement in order to be most effective in today’s fast-paced business environment.

However, the more we function this way, the less productive we are.  Research shows, as is evidenced in Fenella Saunder’s article in the American Scientist, those who juggle five or more functions at a time take the longest to switch between processes and, thus, are most inefficient.

Multitasking Tools

How can we as leaders work more efficiently AND effectively?

Web-based tools can help, social media consolidators allow users to post one update and the service pushes it out to all social media accounts.  Another tool includes what most big software firms continually tout as “unified communications,” the elusive cloud-based application where social media and business communication converge into a time-saving medium.

However advertised, this concept has yet to find a strong fan base.

Strategies –  change habits to multitask productively

Steven Covey Quadrant

As helpful these tools are, they cannot enable maximum effectiveness and efficiency alone.  Day-to-day habits and behaviors have to change!

Tips for more effective and efficient multi-tasking performance on the job include:

  1. Allow yourself “downtime” each day, a time of rest so your brain can process the comments received during the day and synthesize it into feasible steps for tomorrow.  Meditation is ideal for this restful downtime.  Match this with a restful night’s sleep of at least five hours.
  2. Reduce your anxiety levels and those of your team.  Anxiety induces mistake of both omission (forgetting to do a task) and commission (doing a task incorrectly).  To lessen anxiety levels:
    • Check for alignment and understanding using open-ended questions starting with “Do I understand correctly…” and “What will your first step be…..”
    • Clarify how the project fits into the big picture, field questions from the group.
    • Look to the future, collaboratively mapping out what success looks like while creating an environment of collective ownership for success.
    • Follow a disciplined cycle of productivity.  Renowned technologist Pierre Khawand, Lecturer at UC Berkley’s Haas School of Business and Founder of People-OnTheGo, suggests start with forty minutes of focused project time with no interruptions to allow for rich ideation and concept maturation (most disturbing are the visual pop-ups and audio notifications of text messages).  Follow this forty minutes by a similar time-period  of collaboration, responding to calls, IM’s, emails and social media.  In this way, if you have one hour between meetings, use this time productively to get a chunk of work done on your project and still respond to the real-time work environment before your next meeting.
    • Use the Urgent/Important matrix.  Eisenhower is credited with the original quote “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”.  However, Stephen Covey popularized this time management concept through this matrix designed to help you prioritize and consciously decide how to spend your time wisely.  Using this matrix, how would you score updating your Facebook page with what you ate for lunch?  How would you score an email from your CEO asking for action in the next hour?

Humorous Story

Finally, I share a humorous story that one of my webinar participants shard with me.

Her VP-level colleague Jim was running a global team meeting with 35 participants joining from all across the world.

His intention was to share slides over the internet with the participants while also speaking over a conference bridge line for one hour in order to reach a decision on a project.  He started the meeting with a verbal introduction, then asked everyone to log into the website where he was hosting the meeting.

After everyone was logistically situated, he proceeded to share his desktop mistakenly rather than just his Powerpoint presentation.  While discussion ensued between the members of his team, Jim started two IM chats—a spicy chat with his girlfriend and another chat with a colleague —all while his team was discussing the matter Jim had placed before him.

Unbeknownst to Jim, all 35 of the team members that logged on to the shared website could see every one of the somewhat racy chat boxes popping up on Jim’s window.

Multitasking can be a productivity enhancer with careful and attentive management, but, if not managed well, it quickly works against us.

So how are you doing at understanding the competing elements that invade your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks? And what are you doing to think about your phone, email, projects, business, family, recreational life, and more in terms of time-and-productivity-zappers? I would love to hear how you are handling your multitasking lives!

Lynne Tarter, SPHR, HCS is Principal at LET Consulting
She helps clients develop global strategies in Human Capital Management
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog | Skype: lynne.tarter | +1.425.949.2798

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3 responses to “Multitasking: Leader or Loser?

  1. Well, I consider myself a multi tasker at any given point in time, especially in an organization whose function is support in nature. Not urgent and not important to me is the other flip of the coin to the customer . So, a lot of negotiations on the delivery date with the customers take place, and often consume lots of time. However, I always have a rule of thumb that I follow – that I always do thing for the interest of the “company” rather the interest of sections/departments or individuals in sections/department or my individual interest and always use my best and wise judgment in all occasion. Then prioritize the tasks and execute !


  2. Stanford’s (and others’) studies on this topic clearly show a DECREASE in productivity when we “multi-task.” It really is not doing several things at once, but doing “high-speed switching” between tasks, while not giving 100% attention to any one item.

    BTW -Covey’s “Quadrants,” actually come from Charles Hummel’s “The Tyranny of the Urgent” – a great little essay/tract that was written in 1967! (and still available today)


  3. Pingback: Talk Talk Talk | AmberTheLawyer·

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