Meeting professionals often find themselves managing multiple priorities. After all, we all have a variety of responsibilities that need to be handled adroitly. That is simply the nature of our work today. Unlike factory workers of 100 years ago, hardly anyone today focuses solely on one specific task repeatedly. Today, we are all knowledge workers to greater or lesser degrees. Meeting planners, especially, are required to balance time management, self-management and effective allocation of resources. At no time, however, should such workplace skills be confused with the current, if ill-advised, phenomenon known as multitasking.
Multitasking is Not Prescribed!
On the surface, juggling multiple projects appears to be an effective way to handle a plethora of issues that compete for your attention. It seems intuitive that if you can handle both A and B concurrently, you are achieving a productivity gain as well as notable time savings. The fallacy is believing that the human brain can easily double-up and triple-up on activities with no loss of focus, attention or effectiveness.
Tens of thousands of years of human physiological development, however, as well as current studies, suggest that the human brain only offers its sharp attention in one direction at a time. Attempting to simultaneously work in two directions results in reduced attention given to each activity with a predictable loss in productivity and mental acuity.
For certain types of tasks, especially familiar tasks, multitasking may be acceptable. You can run a print job while you work with a file on your screen. As long as the printer has adequate toner and the paper feeds through as designed, there is little harm in multitasking in this manner. Nevertheless, the fact that you are running a print job is likely to diminish your focus on the document in front of you as a portion of your attention is worried about the print job. The loss in mental acuity will be relatively minor and you might not even be aware of it, but it is there.
In the course of the work day, each of us multitasks several times, often without thinking about it. If we traced our actions, we would see that for virtually all of the tasks that we executed effectively, we either stopped multitasking and focused on the task at hand, or continued to multitask because we were so thoroughly familiar with what was required of us, that applying our self wasn’t too taxing.
The real risk of multitasking is that, done often enough, we never quite retreat to that mental space in which we can offer our best concentration and hence, our best work.
Sending the Wrong Message
Over time, the ability to focus and perform at the highest levels is what separates those who rise to the top of their professions and those that continually find themselves scrambling to keep pace. How can this be so? Doesn’t multitasking offer some benefits, even if we’re not our sharpest selves while diverting our attention to this project and that? The answer lies in our physiological hard-wiring.
Consider the production manager who focuses on too many tasks at once and starts knocking over boxes, making math errors or having to rework documents. The multitasker in this case has trouble “seeing the forest for the trees” and is barely able to focus on the big picture of what’s needed. He or she becomes more adept at handling those tasks which seemingly can be done simultaneously, while abandoning other tasks that appear less palatable because they require concentration, analysis or creativity.
If you work for a multitasker, you might find yourself frequently trying to handle an array of assignments doled out to you in random fashion. This type of boss is less likely to engage in planning that facilitates effective dispensation of assignments. If you are a multitasker and supervise others, you likely find yourself frequently in start and stop situations–your staff has too much to do, then too little to do, all as a result of your inability to sit quietly in a chair and plot out schedules.
The more important the task, the more vital it is for you to focus intently. In 2019, make a resolution to practice the art of doing one thing at a time. When you’ve finished the meeting agenda or invoicing, or have taken it as far as you can, then and only then, turn to the second most important task facing you. That is effective priority management.
Jeff Davidson is “The Work-Life Balance Expert®” and a thought leader on work-life balance issues. He is the author of 65 books, including Breathing Space, Dial it Down, Live it Up, Simpler Living, 60 Second Innovator and 60 Second Organizer.