Neuroscientists are clear that multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. Although you can do a few things at the same time like walk and talk, but it is only with activities that your brain has habituated and that does not need focused time and attention. The brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two things at the same time. Although research clearly shows that multitasking reduces productivity and increases mistakes, today’s workplace praises multitasking and believes that an employee is a high performer because he or she is able to multitask.
One of the reasons business needs people to multitask is because of the pressure on resources and the expectation to get more done out of less. The other reason is the advent of office communication technology that enables one to do email, message on instant messenger, be on a web conference and text someone on the phone all at the same time. In other words the environment is pushing you to do something that the brain is not ready for.
One of my clients has just been given a larger responsibility. In addition to running a team of 400 employees across three geographies working on a software product he is now in charge of running the strategy and operations of a sales and marketing function. Two jobs that require very distinct and different set of skills. Although he is a highly capable individual and has the needed qualifications for this additional assignment his challenge clearly is getting through the day with a level of multitasking between the two roles so that he is productive, is able to take the right decisions as well as improve business performance.
Based on my understanding of multitasking, here are some of the coaching tips I had for him. The two roles are very distinct and you must have different strategies in your day to deal with them. Both require your prefrontal cortex (the executive of the brain)to be functioning at top speed from 8am to 11pm (because of the geographic spread)
- Have clear days in the week when you will spend on one business more than the other, ensure there is a rhythm in place for reviews and meetings
- Ensure you have only one Executive Assistant who will help you with both businesses, that way you outsource the time juggling part of the job to just one person.
- When you need to move from one meeting to another which is a completely different topic, ensure you have 15 minutes in between to transition. This way you can do a closure and follow up on the last meeting and a quick prep on your next meeting.
- Announce a no meeting time between 12- 1pm everyday – this is your time to think and reflect. Also announce a no meeting time between 530-830pm so that you can go home unwind, be with the family before you start connecting with other locations.
- Announce a 90 minute window once a week as an open office time – so that you continue to be connected with people and they feel you are still approachable.
- Ensure you have email time built into the calendar every day so that you are not distracted in meetings
- Use 45 minutes on Sunday evenings to review your calendar for the week and do any prep you need to. Assign the prep to people who can help you be well prepared for each meeting
- Try and sign up for a yoga instructor for an hour a day to help with mindfulness.
- Try and eat small meals every two hours to keep you blood sugar steady and fuel your brain.
Kalpana Sinha is a Leadership and Organisation Professional. Her blog has reflections from her work experiences of over 20 years.