Are you good at multitasking?" was the question raised at a business seminar last week. It probably will not surprise you to learn that most of the women in the audience raised their hands, whilst most of the men present, seemed to be unsure as to what the term actually meant!
As we discussed the issue, and even though many of us can, and do, handle more than one task contemporaneously — it soon became apparent from our conversation that the skill of multitasking may not be as advantageous as we might think. In fact, when we concentrate on one task at a time, then we tend to be more efficient, more focused and benefit from no interruptions.
Disruptions and disturbance are the enemies of efficiency. Sitting quietly writing when my concentration is broken by my iPhone suddenly ringing or by the beep that signifies the receipt of a text message, both disrupt my train of thought and my focus. So does the person who interrupts a private conversation to give an unwanted opinion or enters my personal working space, uninvited.
An analogy might be to think of an octopus that can either catch eight small fish with his tentacles, or alternatively use all eight arms to catch one really big fish that could provide food for all his family. There are many advantages. One big fish will make a better meal than eight small fish. Less waste, more fish! Plus it will take less time to catch because catching one large fish makes more efficient use of resources.
It's a similar position when dealing with email. When I am concentrating on a piece of work, I turn off all alerts and the pings that tell me that someone wants my attention.
Of course, it is easier and often more inviting to stop what we are doing, to read and answer the email and then try to get back to the original task.
But the fact is that very often you will fail to pick up immediately the original job in hand. You may try to rekindle the concentration you had only to find it has gone and that it may take you a considerable amount of time to continue where you left off. Don't forget — one big fish can feed more mouths than eight smaller fish and is therefore of greater value!
So why do we try to handle many jobs at one time? Is it that we need to feel that we are so in demand that no one can manage without us? Is it an addiction to check our email every five minutes, because it certainly isn't necessary — unless you are a transplant surgeon awaiting a donor heart or liver to transplant from the victim of a motor vehicle accident?
Last week, I went to see the movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and although I concentrated hard on the plot, it nevertheless went a little ‘over my head'. An atmospheric film, it took me back to the 1960s when there were no computers, no cellphones and the mail was delivered by hand to your desk. Business letters were typed via a ‘typing pool' of secretaries and might take two to three days unless you were a senior executive who had their own secretary. As I watched the film, I wondered how they ran their businesses with no email and no cellphone!
The answer is although communication was not instant, nevertheless companies and organisations were still run efficiently even though there was no 24/7 access to world news, and if you needed a book you had to go to a shop to buy it rather than emailing Amazon.
Reverting back to multitasking and the one big fish versus the bunch of smaller ones. When your cellphone rings, resist the temptation to immediately pick it up. The chances are that it is not ‘urgent' and your caller might learn that you are not always instantly available. The benefits of instant communication are sometimes an illusion.
So next time, take a book with you to bed, or to the bathroom instead of your BlackBerry.
The author is CEO of an international work stress consultancy based in London. She is a BBC guest-broadcaster, motivational speaker and author of ‘Show Stress Who's Boss!'.
one thing at a time
- Multitasking is not always efficient
- Interruptions break concentration
- Check your email at specific times of the day