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Taking multitasking to task

One of the reasons people are such bad listeners is that often they are multitasking and consequently doing a poor job of listening. • It seems that no matter to whom you are talking or looking, the person is often doing several things at once. • Most people will tell you that they feel they are forced to multitask in order to accomplish everything they need to do. Moreover, they believe they are really good at multitasking. It's like a badge of honor: "I am a great multitasker!" — a skill to be admired or developed. Interesting, it seems that no one has a problem multitasking when he is the one doing it, but everyone gets annoyed when others do it while they are interacting.

Are we really capable of multitasking?

We know multitasking while driving (texting, talking on the phone, anything else that takes your eyes off the road) is not a good idea and can have fatal results. Likewise, jobs that are cognitively or physically challenging would certainly not be good times to multitask. And yet, at work, we often do this despite having a cognitively challenging job, and believe we can get away with it. We conduct our performance reviews with employees while answering the phone or sending e-mails. We listen to conference calls while working on other projects.

Think about how often you multitask when dealing with colleagues, friends or family, then think about how it impacts your relationships with those people. Some researchers have suggested that the cost of interruptions to American workers and the economy in terms of lost productivity and profitability is staggering (more than $650 billion a year).

So, what can we do?

1 Understand and believe that multitasking with tasks that require our attention and effort is not productive. Put it to the test for one day and really focus on one thing at a time (without interruptions). You'll be more productive and your associates will appreciate you more when you give them the attention they deserve.

2 Control your environment. Limit the interruptions you allow to your day. E-mail is one of the biggest interruptions because most people check e-mail throughout the day. Try scheduling one or two blocks of time each day to check e-mail. If other people are your greatest interruption because they come into your office or space throughout the day, you can control that situation as well. You can either drop what you are doing and focus on that person right then or schedule a time to talk later. Either way, you avoid multitasking, stay focused and enhance the relationship.

3 Be more organized. Pull out only the materials you need for the task at hand. If other thoughts come to you while you are working, make a note. But don't stop what you are doing to start working on those tasks.

4 Wear earphones or invest in background sounds to keep you from being distracted if you have a noisy environment.

5 Set expectations. Let others know you are tackling one thing at a time. Discourage those around you from multitasking. Stop making it an admirable skill.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience consulting on leadership and career management.

Taking multitasking to task 03/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 3:30am]
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