Multitasking is a trait people often think all successful executives share. And those who cannot do it may feel lacking when around those who seemingly juggle multiple tasks and interruptions effectively without letting anything fall through the cracks. I still remember decades ago being given yet another project by the boss. When I reminded her I already was dealing with three things she replied with an off-handed, “Yes, I’m merely asking you to multitask.”
But actually, it is impossible for the human brain to complete tasks simultaneously. What multitasking really means is segueing from one task to another without attention loss. We have measured multitasking as part of our executive assessment for many years, and have found people vary from those who are highly multitasking to those who are quite single-tasking.
As a leader, you need a diverse team; but paradoxically, the differences that give breadth to a team also lead to friction among the members. One example of that friction occurs when the highly multitasking person deals with the very single-tasking.
Whether you are single or multitasking, it’s important to understand the other. The best way to understand someone is to put yourself in their shoes.
If you are single-tasking…
Good news! Most research indicates your one-at-a-time approach usually proves the most effective. Unfortunately, demands in real world often shift and we can’t always force those demands to our style. Some things you can do:
1. Try not to be irritated with multitasking people.
This may sound familiar. I’m in my office talking with someone and Maria sticks her head in the doorway to ask me a question. I don’t multitask conversations well at all. I answer with mild irritation and then try to remember where I was in the conversation. My natural inclination is to think Maria rude!
In all likelihood, she is not being rude. She can handle interruptions without a problem and assumes everyone else can as well. In her mind, it was a “20 second” conversation, no big deal.
There’s nothing wrong with being single-tasking, it just doesn’t fit everyone or every situation. I try to tell people what I am like. For instance, we have a client e-team with whom we teleconference. I always remind them, “If you want me to be part of the conversation, remember, when four of you talk at once I can’t hear anyone.” If someone interrupts, I usually say, “I’ll get back to you when I’m free, thanks!” If you are single-tasking, let people at work know you are most productive when you can shut your door for a few hours a day to focus.
3. Have some ways to live in a multitasking world.
Take a few seconds to make notes of where you are and what you were doing, so that after the interruption you can pick up where you were.
If you are multitasking…
More good news! The business world is increasingly busy with interruptions and changing demands. You are able to flex to meet that. Unfortunately, you will multitask at times when focusing would be more effective. Things you can do:
1. Try not to be irritated with single-tasking people.
You have one simple question. You stick your head in John’s doorway and ask it. It takes all of ten seconds to ask and get an answer. But John sighs heavily, rolls his eyes and sounds irritated. It’s as if you robbed him of precious hours. You walk away thinking, he thinks he is so important that everything can wait if he’s busy.
He doesn’t necessarily think that. He doesn’t handle interruption well and assumes that is true of everyone. Get to know people on an individual basis and find out what works for them.
2. Try to avoid always playing to your ability.
If you can handle browsing, carrying on a conversation and having people drop tasks on you, people will take advantage of that. You may spread yourself too thin, and you are probably aware that you often do that, right? Doing ten things at a B- level may not be as good as restricting yourself to 1-3, paying attention, and creating an A+.
Take advantages of each other’s strengths.
Here’s the interesting thing about people who are so different, they irritate us. They almost always play a complementing role in our lives. We have seen countless cases. Juan is the think-on-his-feet guy who can conference call with five people firing questions while Jerry seems tongue-tied and uncomfortable. Jerry is glad Juan is there to lead the call.
When a single document takes hours of reading and concentration, Juan gets bored, loses concentration (because he is used to doing five things at once) and makes simple errors and misses important details. On the other hand, Jerry loves doing that kind of work and does it well.
Whether managing your peers, yourself or your E-team, don’t judge or worry about the differences between us – use them.
Bob Rose Principal of Dallas-based Rose Porterfield Group. He consults to executive teams in a wide range of business areas dealing with people at work.