Multi-tasking vs Focused Attention: Which One is Better?

leadership development
At the Table with Jen

Let's set the stage a bit:  

It’s the start of the week, and you have a list a mile long full of tasks that need to be done.

You take a sip of your coffee (or in my case, tea) and wonder how you are going to get it all done.

Perhaps you start checking email, only to realize you need to make a phone call before you head to your first meeting – either virtual or in person.

After finishing the call, you realize you need to update a few notes to be ready for the meeting, but you still have to get this one email sent before you leave, so you switch gears again and finish the email.

Then with only a few minutes to spare, you scribble some thoughts on a sheet of paper and race to your meeting.

As the morning progresses and you are in another meeting, you realize there are some emails you want to check, so you decide that you can listen to the meeting and respond to a few emails, too.

Does this sound at all like something you’ve experienced?

If so, you probably thought you were multi-tasking, and doing it well.

We seem to think that multi-tasking is a good thing because we believe it shows how we can manage multiple activities.

In fact, we have probably been rewarded for multi-tasking and even viewed it as a badge of honor because we thought we were showing more capacity for work.

Yet how well were those activities done?

How efficiently were they completed?

The real key to managing multiple activities is more about how you focus your attention during the activity at hand than it is about jumping from activity to activity.

Let me explain.

At first blush, it may seem less expedient or even counter-productive to focus on one activity at a time; however, when everything seems to be getting your attention, nothing really is.

When your attention, time and energy are split among various tasks, the tasks take longer to complete and you feel rushed and disorganized.

Your best effort means you are efficient, productive, and fully engaged.

So how do you shift from a multi-tasking mindset to a “one-at-a-time” mindset?

That takes practice, but using these 3 tips can help you make that shift.

  1. When you are in the moment and realize you are multi-tasking, stop and determine which activity really needs to be done first, then focus on it to its completion before moving onto the next task.
  2. When a task seems never ending, thus enabling the desire to jump around on other tasks that are easier to complete, consider if you can break down the larger task into smaller chunks. 
  3. If you’re working on a task that you do not have all of the parts you need to get it done, then consider waiting until you do have everything you need to start and finish it in one setting.

When you remove distractions and make a concerted effort to finish one task at a time, you're less stressed and more productive because you're also clearer on your priorities and making them happen.