I confess, I have been a multitasker and I thought my productivity was good. At any one time you might have found me working on three or more tasks/projects, answering the phone and welcoming anyone who came to my office with, "Sure, I have time to…”
With multiple applications open at the same time, it is easy to get distracted and jump from one application to another and not complete any task well. Just think about the possibility of error and the stress I have imposed upon myself.
"It has been scientifically demonstrated that the brain cannot effectively or efficiently switch between tasks, so you lose time. It takes four times longer to recognize new things so you’re not saving time; multitasking actually costs time. You also lose time because you often make mistakes. If you’re multitasking and you send an email and accidentally "reply all” and the person you were talking about is on the email, it’s a big mistake. In addition, studies have shown that we have a much lower retention rate of what we learn when multitasking, which means you could have to redo the work or you may not do the next task well because you forgot the information you learned. Everyone’s complaining of memory issues these days – they’re symptoms of this multitasking epidemic. Then, of course, there’s the rudeness factor, which doesn’t help develop strong relationships with others.”
Jessica Kleimann, How Multitasking Hurts Your Brain (and Your Effectiveness at Work)
There are many studies that dispute the value of multitasking. For example, check out "12 Reasons to Stop Multitasking Now!” by Amanda MacMillan,or "The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking” by Kendra Cherry.
Isn’t this great news in the middle of busy tax season? You are probably thinking, "Thanks a lot Sue. My manager is expecting me to do this, this and that all by lunch today.”
The good news is that there are simple steps you can take to minimize interruptions and distractions and at the same time, manage your stress level. We call this "Focus Time” and following are a few suggestions.
- Reduce interruptions during periods of focus time. Turn off your new email notifications and silence your cell phone and texting alerts.
- Use the To-do lists and reminder functions available to you. In our database system I have the capability to create a To-do under a client or a project with a due date and/or milestone dates. I make sure to add a reminder notice for myself before the task is due and I use it so that all relevant information is quickly available. Sometimes a good ol’ fashion notebook will work best. A combination of both is also fine.
- Plan your day in blocks. This may involve sharing phone answering duties with one or two co-workers so that you each have a block of time when you will not be interrupted by answering the phone. Other ideas include sharing responsibilities for greeting clients as they enter your office and only checking your email during specific blocks of time during the day, like first thing in the morning, right after lunch and then near then end of the day.
- Clear your desk of non-essential items. If possible, clear your desk of items other than what you are currently working on. If it’s messy and you happen to catch a glimpse of some paperwork or a post-it note with a reminder, you might be tempted to focus some of your attention on those things as well (sounds like multitasking to me).
- Manage meetings. Request an agenda for meetings you attend or if you are meeting with a co-worker, make clear the scope of the meeting and stick to it. A task force I am on recently scheduled the basic agenda topics for the entire year. By doing so, we are able to plan ahead and invite the appropriate staff to attend when needed. This may work for meetings you may have concerning a client engagement.
There are many, many ideas available to reduce stress and improve your productivity. In his Harvard Business Review article "How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking,” Peter Bregman described these benefits when he decided to experiment by not multitasking for a week:
"First, it was delightful… Second, I made significant progress on challenging projects… Third, my stress dropped dramatically… Fourth, I lost all patience for things I felt were not a good use of my time... Fifth, I had tremendous patience for things I felt were useful and enjoyable… Sixth, there was no downside.”
Now, while you are in the busy tax season, is the time to focus and manage your stress by taking steps to reduce multitasking.