As people managers, we want our employees to be as focused, creative and productive as possible. In fact, today’s workforce often equates productivity to our multitasking prowess. I must admit, I pride myself on being a multitasker, and I expect my team to take on many tasks too.
So when I was reading a Harvard Business Review blog post the other day, “Train Your Brain to Focus”, imagine my surprise, as I learned that scientific evidence indicates, our brains don’t function at an optimum level when we are trying to do many things at once. It can actually be a detriment to creativity, and proper focus.
But here’s my confession – while I thought the post was great, my initial reaction was: “How can I tell my team to stop doing something that I really value?”
But looking further into Hammerness and Moore’s analysis, it’s clear the issue is not the principle of multitasking overall, but our submission to distractions.
For example, socially, many of us seem to accept responding to emails or taking calls in the midst of boardroom presentations; or jumping from one meeting onto other work during a five-minute break (instead of giving our brain a little reprieve from work to re-charge).
In addition to implementing the post’s tips of positive thinking, laptop and smart phone-free meetings, and much needed “brain restoration” breaks, I would add one more element to the list: working in blocks. This is where you commit to exclusively engaging in one project, or one task at a time, be it for five minutes or one hour.
Multi-tasking and “high quality focusing” need not be mutually exclusive. The trick is in being disciplined enough to avoid the highly unproductive “back and forth” trap – jumping from email to email before completing one thought, interrupting productive work on one project to consider a challenge on another project, etc.
As part of our service promise to our clients, our staff commit to returning emails and phone calls within one hour of receipt. While this can be challenging on busy days, I advise my team to pre-plan and “block” their time throughout the day. This may mean, they work on one position first, for example, take a break, then take five minutes to respond to emails/calls, and then move onto another search for a specified time.
Here’s my net takeaway on shedding our all-too-common attention-deficit syndrome in today’s “always-on” work world:
Do many things, but for the greatest focus, creativity and productivity, do them only one at a time. I consider this a golden rule.