Perhaps you remember the story from a few years ago. Air traffic control lost contact with Northwest Airlines Flight 188 about halfway through the flight. Just as the US Air Force was scrambling jets to check on the plane, contact was reestablished, but by now the plane was more than 200 kilometers past Minneapolis and was over Wisconsin. The pilots were on their personal computers going over future flying schedules instead of paying attention to their job of flying the plane. The two pilots were fired and lost their flying licenses. Two careers lost to multitasking.
To finish this series, today I want to suggest some good ways to multitask and then finish this post with a great suggestion for putting all of this together to improve productivity!
Multitask With Low Cognitive Load Tasks
Scott Belsky, in his book, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality” suggests the multitasking is a myth and that sequential tasking is better. He proposes that through good organization, you should move quickly between tasks and projects and concentrate on one task at a time.
Also, as I mentioned in Part 3, it is great to multitask as long as only one task is mentally taxing and the rest are low-cognitive load tasks. It is definitely worth the read if you missed it.
Robert Half International, the prestigious staffing service provider, claims that the average employee only works at about 50% of capacity, much of that due to distractions.
A study* just released this week found that interruptions greatly diminish the quality of work produced by an employee. They said, ”Interruption can cause a noticeable decrement in the quality of work, so it’s important to take steps to reduce the number of external interruptions we encounter daily.”
Some great ideas to stop interruptions:
- Turn off your cellphone for uninterrupted work periods;
- Turn off email programs and only check email once every hour or two;
- If you have an appointment looming, set a timer so you don’t have to be distracted by making sure you don’t miss your appointment;
- Turn off music with words while working; (Some scientists think music without words is okay and distracts only a little or not at all.)
- Place a sign on your door to let coworkers know under what circumstances you can be interrupted. It can be like a traffic light. It is okay to interrupt you 1.) freely (green light); 2.) only if it is pretty important (yellow light); or 3.) only in an emergency (red light).
It is almost indisputable that focus is the key to higher levels of quality and quantity of work. Scott Belsky, in his book, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality,” says, “Create windows of nonstimulation. To achieve long-term goals in the age of always-on technology and free-flowing communication, create windows of time dedicated to uninterrupted project focus.”
My post from last year has some great suggestions for this.
For a humorous look at how to focus, watch this wonderful TED Talk from Paolo Cardini.
The following series of questions come from the excellent book, “The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary Keller. He proposes asking, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
These are his focusing questions:
- For My Spiritual Life: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to help others?”
- For My Physical Health: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to achieve my diet goals?”
- For My Personal Life: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my skill at _______?”
- For My Key Relationships: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my relationship with my spouse?”
- For My Job: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure that I hit my goals?”
- For My Business: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make us more competitive?”
- For My Finances: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to increase my net worth?”
The ironic thing is that more focus also necessitates more rest. I strongly suggest periods of complete focus, followed by short periods of rest to be most efficient at work tasks.
This is backed up by recent research.** This study suggested that short periods of Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing (WILB) actually improved productivity in employees under 30 years old. These activities include YouTube, Facebook, or internet surfing. Yeah! Concentrate on work for a while and then watch a YouTube video!
Putting It All Together
So, to really be productive, we should
- stop bad multitasking; only one high-cognitive load task at a time
- do more good multitasking; do low-cognitive load tasks in the background
- turn off distractions
- rest for short periods between periods of concentrated focus
One interesting method brings these ideas together. Many of you may have heard of something called the “Pomodoro Technique.”
It is a time management plan where you
- plan what your task is
- work in a very focused manner for 25 minutes while setting a timer
- when the timer goes off, you stop and rest for 3-5 minutes
- set another timer for 25 minutes and focus again
- after 4 “pomodori” take a 15- to 20-minute break.
There’s even an app for that! See the Vitamin R App if you are interested.
I hope you have enjoyed this series on multitasking and have learned some valuable things. Just in case you were wondering, because of the airline incident I mentioned earlier, the FAA has put some new rules into effect to keep pilots from multitasking while at the controls of an airplane. Good news, don’t you think?
*Cyrus Foroughi et al. Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work? Human Factors, July 2014 DOI:10.1177/0018720814531786
**Brent L. S. Coker. Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing. Human Performance, 2013; 26 (2): 114 DOI:10.1080/08959285.2013.765878