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Multitasking

Most of us think we can multitask fairly well but are you sure you are getting the effectiveness you want from multitasking or is it taking you longer than you thought? This article will help you focus your multitasking efforts to improve your effectiveness.

What is Multitasking?

Multitasking is doing several tasks at the same time and moving attention between jobs as required. Most of us are required in our work to be able to multitask as we don’t get the luxury of working uninterrupted on one task at a time. We are expected to handle multiple priorities as we have various competing demands on our time. The biggest issue when multitasking is that you may just be doing several tasks in an ineffective way, and there is a danger that you might ‘drop the ball’ on one of your tasks.

There is an argument to say that we are never really multitasking just sharing brain time. Our brains aren’t designed to work on two tasks at once, what we tend to do is switch quickly from one task to another then back again. This can be effective if you have chosen the right tasks. If one requires uninterrupted concentration, you will struggle.

Multitasking and technology

Today’s technology means we are all multitasking at work from the moment we set foot into the office, if not before. We check emails at the same time as phone messages; we flip between screens on our laptops trying to answer emails at the same time as writing a report.

Choosing when to multitask

Some tasks are more suited than others to work on simultaneously. If you are working on a complex problem that requires your full concentration, then this is probably not the time to multitask. However, if you have some routine but long or dull tasks that need to be done, you may be able to keep your motivation going by working on them in a multitasking way. It can also be effective if the tasks are routine as you are very familiar with them.

When you look at your ‘to do’ list, make an honest appraisal of which tasks you may be able to multitask and which you will require full concentration for. Diarise those that require uninterrupted time and make sure your colleagues know that this is a time that you should not be interrupted.

Planning

Generally, you cannot fully plan your day – the phone might ring, or you might get an email with an urgent customer request. However, you can plan your day to make the best of your time. If there is a time when you are most likely to be interrupted, either by phone calls or by colleagues, then schedule tasks in that time where the interruptions will not have a big effect. These are likely to be tasks you are very familiar with, that are broken down into small pieces so that each part doesn’t take long and does not require a lot of concentration.

Focus on understanding your work patterns and preferences. Some people prefer to tackle a big, concentration-heavy project first thing, for others the best time might be mid-morning once they have cleared emails and made phone calls.

Most of us find that a mix of individual projects and multitasking can work best, as you are using your brain in different ways. You may spend a couple of hours on a large project, then an hour on a few smaller, easier ones, then another large chunk of time on a final project for the day.

Other constraints

Be aware of any other constraints that might exist in your task or project. Is someone reviewing your report, during which time you might be able to work on something else? Is there any IT downtime planned, which can be a great opportunity to step away from the laptop to get other tasks done? If you have several documents that you need to review, do them all after each other while you have your reviewing mindset.

Moving from one task to another

When you do move between tasks, try to make sure you do it at sensible times. For example, this might be at the end of a section of a report you are writing, to make sure you have finished your thought process for that particular section. You don’t want to have to come back to something and waste time re-thinking it through.
If you do have to pause mid-way through a task, do it consciously and before you turn your attention to something else, make sure you are clear what you need to do when you return to the task. You might want to set an alarm or diarise when you will get back to that task.

Does it really make sense?

While multitasking should be done when it can save time, you may find that interruptions and moving from task to task can extend the amount of time a task will take. Consider carefully when you are planning to multitask, and ensure you are satisfied that it will result in a more effective outcome for everyone.

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