Is There A Cure For Multitasking?

March 25, 2016


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Recently I was reviewing a variety of agency job descriptions as I was considering our hiring and recruiting efforts. The vast majority, and especially at more junior levels, listed the ability to multitask in one form or another as a key required skill. And I certainly get why. Agencies are fast-paced, projects seem to move a thousand miles an hour, and we need people who can handle a variety of tasks quickly and effectively. It seems like the more a person can juggle at once the better. These skills apply not only to client-facing positions but also for people like me on the non-client side of things.

That said, I think the constant need to quickly shift focus from one issue or project to another presents real challenges. I find it’s often hard to devote as much effort or thought as I’d like before my attention is required elsewhere. In my prior life at a law firm, I could shut the door to my office, turn off my phone, and focus on something for an entire day if needed. Or two or three. Now, I feel lucky if I get to even a quarter of the things on my to-do list in a given day. Most days are filled with putting out fires, addressing unanticipated issues and questions, being pulled into unscheduled meetings, and doing whatever it takes to keep the agency moving behind the scenes.

This is what makes multitasking so attractive. You feel like the more you’re able to juggle and keep moving forward, the more efficient you are and the more you’ll get done. After all, everybody wants to feel more productive. But is it true? Most people, me included, would be reluctant to admit that it isn’t. Unfortunately, in the end I’m convinced that multitasking has far more downside than upside.

For me, trying to do so many things at once means I’m not always able to devote 100% of my focus and attention and, as a result, I often have to spend more time in small chunks than I would if I could focus on one thing at a time. The quality of thinking and work product can often suffer as well. And this is why I think I need to do something to change my multitasking ways.

I take some solace in knowing it’s not just me who sees the problem. There’s a lot of support for the fact that multitasking isn’t an ideal way to work. For starters, our brains are not designed to do more than one thing at the same time. (This is why texting and driving is so dangerous.) There’s also evidence showing that working on too many things at once leads to inefficiency, less productivity, mistakes, and even higher stress levels.

Of course we’d all like to avoid these things. But wishful thinking won’t make clients and deadlines go away, and there’s little hope that we’ll all suddenly break the cycle of doing too many things at once that’s made possible by the immediacy of email, texts, and smartphones. The question, then, is how we retrain ourselves to work differently.

There’s certainly no shortage of advice on the subject. Some suggest simply allowing for regular downtime, or regularly scheduled breaks, and actively trying to focus on single tasks without distractions. Others recommend avoiding distractions like phones, email, and the Internet while you’re working on something. Even things as simple as never having more than one tab open in your Internet browser. Still others suggest taking on fewer tasks and being up front with others about your single-task focus. All of these sound great, and easy in theory, but I think to some degree they oversimplify the external factors that make doing these things very difficult on a regular basis. That, and multitasking is addicting and habitual. When is the last time you watched TV without also surfing the Internet? I know it’s a rarity for me.

Having considered all of these various approaches and what might work for me given my work habits and in my particular situation, I decided to try something different. Sure, I’ll try to be more conscious of my work habits throughout the day and I’ll do my best to focus my attention while avoiding distractions. Those efforts will be a constant. But, I realized that I might find a better environment to develop the habit of focusing on one thing, and one thing only, outside of work. So, I signed up for golf lessons.

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For at least an hour a week, I’ll be working one-on-one with a golf coach in a private facility. And then regular, solitary practice on top of that. My only focus will be to improve my swing to the level where I’ll finally, finally be able to join the PGA Tour. A lofty goal? Yes. Can I do it if I devote enough time, focus and attention? Most assuredly not. But, no matter how much my golf game improves, I think the focus and time required to work on the detailed mechanics of a golf swing, with no distractions, will help me develop habits that ultimately will be useful at work.