Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Focusing Intensely vs. Multi-Tasking
The ability to "multi-task" has long been seen as a good and necessary quality for the modern worker to possess. We all write it on our resume next to other complimentary descriptions, such as "good team player," and "proven leader." Multi-tasking has been seen as a vital part of today's workplace, because, the theory goes, business moves too fast these days to only focus on one thing at a time.
This ignores the fact that it is physically impossible for a person to be thinking of two separate things simultaneously. We are unable to hold more than one thought in our mind at any given instant. The idea of multi-tasking requires us to split time between two or more projects, transferring our focus from one to the next, defusing our ability to concentrate, and short-changing each. Take, for example, a case where you are on the phone and checking e-mail at the same time. Both of these tasks suffer in our attempt to "get things done." We are not able to give the person on the phone the focus that they deserve, and we can't really believe that they we are getting any deep reading done either.
These and other similar situations should be handled separately, allowing yourself to give each of them as close to 100% of your focus as possible. A related, but slightly different habit is allowing yourself to get distracted from meaningful work for small, less-important tasks. E-mail is probably the most common example. After a small distraction like e-mail, it can take us 5 or more minutes to refocus on whatever we were working on before the interruption.
Creating and using time-blocks seems to be the answer. These are periods of time where you focus entirely on the project you have chosen. We don't work in a vacuum, so yes, distractions will happen. A client, colleague or your boss may come up to you right when you achieve your Zen Buddhist state of concentration and insist that you handle something completely separate. And yes, sometimes emergencies will come up. That being said, do what you can to minimize non-vital distractions. Perhaps close out Outlook, or at least turn off the volume so that you don't hear the alerts as each new e-mail comes in. What your time blocks are made up of, and how long you devote to each is dependent on your particular job, goals and the amount of time you are able to concentrate on one task. If your job is heavily dependent on e-mail, you may want to schedule that first. Other time blocks can be for work on an upcoming presentation, business trip, or inter-staff meeting. Take short breaks in between each block if time is available. A walk around the block, or just getting up to get water can suffice. Do your best to focus entirely on that one goal for the time period to the exclusion of all else.
We should endeavor to feel better on a task done well than the number of "to-do's" checked off your list at the end of the day.