For most of us, rubbing our tummies and tapping our heads simultaneously is about as close as we can get to actually doing two things at once, let alone more. Some say that multitasking is a myth and that when we’re juggling phone calls, emails and impending deadlines, what we’re actually doing is single-tasking really, really fast.
Multitasking: Is It Real?
Regardless of how you look at it, multitasking — or at least the appearance of it — is essential in business. With a nod to IT developments, distractions at work have never been higher, and the pace expected of us has never been faster.
However, multiple studies over many years have shown that the multitasking we think we’re doing is actually just quickly jumping back and forth between tasks. Furthermore, when we do this, our progress slows and the quality of our work suffers. So, how do you handle it all and improve efficiency on top of that?
Don’t Second Guess Yourself
Business leaders tend to be perfectionists. This trait may serve you well, but trusting yourself is equally important. When you complete a task, quickly move on to the next one with no second guessing, no rethinking what you just finished and no considering how you might have done it even better. Know that you wouldn’t have gotten to where you are without consistently doing exceptional work. It may not be perfect in your mind, but much more than likely, everyone else thinks it’s fabulous.
Filter, Prioritize and Organize
When you’re working on a critical project, close your virtual door. Shut off email alerts and forward your phone calls directly to voicemail. Unless you’re a police officer, firefighter or EMT, you do not have to be available every single minute. If you’re truly needed to address a crisis, your people know where to find you.
We all have times when absolutely everything feels like top priority, but it truly isn’t. Look at each item on your to-do list and ask yourself, "What is the worst thing that can happen, and what is the likelihood of it happening if I don’t do this today?" It's almost guaranteed that you'll find things that can wait.
You do have a to-do list, right? If you’re not a list maker, you are one now. Getting to-dos out of your head and onto a list will unclutter your brain and ease any anxiety you might have about forgetting something important.
Technology and Changing Gears
There are tons of apps to help you organize and track your progress on multiple projects. Check them out and choose one that works for you. Do not get caught up in thinking that you’re too busy to enter all of your stuff into an app. You will more than make up the time by being more productive because you’re better organized.
When you move from one task or project to another, make it tangibly clear to yourself that you’re doing so. Clear your desk and/or desktop of everything associated with one project before you move on to the next.
One graphic designer has a collection of troll dolls, each with different-colored, wildly coiffed hair. Each one represents to her a specific client's job. She places the one that represents the project on which she’s currently working near her mouse pad. When she’s ready to move on to a different project, she puts it away and takes out the one that represents the new project. You might become the laughing stock of the break room if you did this (artsy types can get away with more), but you get the idea.
Let It Go
The hardest part of becoming a better multitasker is letting go of the myth that you’re actually doing several things at once and doing them well. It doesn’t work that way, and it’s not because you’re lacking some critical skill set. That’s the way it is for pretty much everyone.
Studies have shown that when we actually do try to do several things at once, we don’t do any of them very well. The extraordinarily weird part is that if we think we’re multitasking even when we’re not, it improves job performance.
So, engage in no second guessing and filter, prioritize and organize. Get yourself a great project management app and use it. Make tangible delineations between projects. You’ll have more control over your business operations, you'll feel like the master of multitasking and you'll actually get more done in a better way.
LeDona Withaar has over 20 years’ experience as a securities industry professional and finance manager. She was an auditor for the National Association of Securities Dealers, a compliance manager for UNX, Inc. and a securities compliance specialist at Capital Group. She has an MBA from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has done volunteer work in corporate development for nonprofit organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She currently owns and operates her own small business. In addition to writing for PocketSense, she writes for Bizfluent, Budgeting the Nest, Legal Beagle, PocketSense and Zacks.