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Time Management

Smart Multi-Tasking

Were you were planning to read this at the same time you were, say, going to watch CNN to find out what happened in the world today? Do yourself a favor and turn off the TV. Quite often, doing both means you’ll remember little of either.

The term multitasking was coined in 1966 to describe the capability of a computer to execute more than one task at the same time. Actually, it referred to the computer’s central processing unit (CPU) capacity to switch from one program to another so quickly, that is seemed to be executing all the programs at the same time. When referring to human beings, however, multitasking has two meanings: doing more than one thing at the same time; and switching back and forth among several tasks, quickly and repeatedly.

In fact, humans have been multitasking much longer than any machine (as any parent will confirm), but never before have we been expected to do so much at the same time, day in and day out with no respite, in an attempt to keep up with the avalanche of current information and the work it generates. Keeping up has become so onerous that it is getting people down. Rates of personal dissatisfaction, depression and feelings of isolation have been creeping upwards every year. Psychologists and efficiency experts have been studying multitasking for a number of years now and the results cannot be argued: Multitasking is not effective.

Two recent studies (conducted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in conjunction with the University of Michigan and Carnegie-Mellon University) have come to remarkably similar conclusions:

Doing several things at the same time reduces, not increases, productivity. Depending on the tasks, the outcome of multitasking can be dangerous (the classic example is driving and talking on a cell phone—even if it’s a "hands-free" device). Multitasking doesn’t save time, it costs time--as much as 20-40%in terms of efficiency and accuracy, plus time lost switching between tasks. And time costs rise higher with the complexity of the task.

Brain scans clearly show that multitasking is not an efficient use of brainpower. Brain activity does not double when people try to do two

Keys to Successful Multi-tasking

  1. Estimate task times accurately. This will ensure that your schedule is a more realistic reflection of what you will and can do during the day, reducing the need to multitask as frequently. Most people underestimate how long it takes just to manage information—especially those repetitive tasks they do several times a day, almost without thinking, such as respond to messages, make copies, handle e-mails, send faxes, and so on. When was the last time you set aside time in your daily schedule to return calls or answer email? See, that time isn't free.

  2. Test yourself. Learn how accurate you are in measuring the scope and duration of your projects. As a diagnostic tool, note down the amount of time you think the tasks on your list will take. Then for one week, note the times you start and finish those tasks. Compare the times you wrote down with the actual time it took to do each task. Measure the difference. These figures will give you part of the picture. But what about those interruptions, you ask? This gap between actual and desired is what I call the “sanity gap.” Looking at real data and allowing extra unscheduled open time in your calendar for interruptions and other unexpected situations provides you a more accurate understanding of your day. You will need to modify your schedule to fit the more realistic timeframe. This alone will help to reduce your frustration, and will go a long way toward making you feel more productive and in better control.

  3. Limit the percentage of the day that you allow yourself to multitask. When you limit the behavior, you will feel less scattered by days end. People multitask in order to save time. But if you are beginning to suffer from CRS (“Can’t Remember Stuff”), it is not a function of age – it’s a function of overload. A recent study by the Institute for the Future reported that employees of Fortune 1000 companies send and receive 178 email messages a day and are interrupted by others on average of at least three times an hour. Sound familiar? Remember that electronic interruptions are self-inflicted. The problem isn’t that an email was sent; the problem is that you allowed yourself to stop what you were doing to respond to the unknown, unprioritized, unexpected message that may or may not be more important than what you were already committed to doing. When you limit interruptions, you help to control your day.

  4. Pay attention to clues. When you are bumping into other people because you are: texting while you walk; checking emails at a movie or concert; unwilling to turn off the phone when at dinner with a companion; or rereading an email for the third time because you were on the phone during the earlier readings, ask yourself, "Does every second really need to be filled with activity?"

Try these suggestions and adapt to this list to fit your work style and work life. As with any behavioral changes, don’t tackle too much at once; select one or two upon which to concentrate. Once those are mastered, add others.

Multitasking is a part of life these days, but you have to be smart about when it works for or against you. Eliminating multitasking entirely isn’t realistic. Managing it so that it truly works for you is possible.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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