Busy is not the same as productive or effective. Are you using your time wisely? TIM SHARP
By Tim Sharp
How many of you, while you’re reading this article, are also engaging in another task? Are you also eating your lunch; reading another document; checking emails; or speaking on the phone? Are you sipping on a coffee or talking to someone else?
And if you are engaging in one or more other tasks, I’m guessing that you probably think this is just normal, not anything unusual, because we’ve all been encouraged, particularly in recent years, to practice and to master what’s typically referred to as multi-tasking.
Life’s too short to simply do one thing at a time, is a common attitude. I’m too busy not to try to do several things at the same time, is another.
But as reasonable as these beliefs might sound, are they really helpful? What, if any, are the consequences of constantly dividing our attention between multiple activities?
Well, new research suggests that multi-tasking is not always the best way to go; although a helpful and sensible strategy at times, it’s also been found to be unhelpful and to lead to lower levels of productivity at other times.
Amazingly, one study found that people are interrupted every three minutes in the workplace! And interestingly, approximately half of these are self-interruptions (including surfing the web, making a phone call while in the middle of something else, etc) meaning people aren’t always just distracted by others but that they also distract themselves by switching tasks (often unnecessarily).
Now as noted earlier, interruptions aren’t always bad; in fact, if they’re short and if they allow you to contemplate or reflect on a problem, then distractions can actually be beneficial. More often than not, however, distractions (especially when they take your mind to a completely different topic) are unhelpful as they take up a significant amount of the person’s cognitive resources (that’s your thinking power) and on average it takes more than 23 minutes to refocus!
Further, those who’re frequently distracted experience significantly more stress and there’s no doubt that stress in the workplace is associated with poorer performance, impaired interpersonal relationships and generally negative outcomes such as not thinking as deeply or fully about issues under consideration.
In the long term, this must surely be problematic as superficial thinking will almost certainly lead to poor or incomplete solutions as well as inefficiencies.
But surely we’re all too busy not to multi-task. So what’s the answer?
Well first, we need to change attitudes – and the most problematic is that multi-tasking will lead us to getting more done. As noted above, in most cases this is simply not true. We need to be more honest with ourselves and to change our work practices accordingly.
Some workplaces limit internet usage (one of the biggest distractions) although personally, I don’t think this is such a wise idea. Based on many interactions and discussions with many busy people, I’ve discovered over the years that most people will just find other ways to distract themselves. It doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.
Another strategy, tried by some businesses, is to have email free days (or at least email free mornings). This can be very helpful and I’ve coached several clients who’ve noted that during these times they’re more productive and more likely to engage in conversations with colleagues that lead to positive outcomes.
In simple terms, this is consistent with a strategy sometimes referred to as “blocking” where you set aside a block of time during which you focus on one and one thing only. For many people, this can be extremely effective.
Ultimately, however, I’ve found that the best approach is to learn and to train others in how to focus more on priorities (what’s really important).
In our coaching and consulting programs we break this down into two component parts. First, we’ve found that many busy people realise tremendous benefits from attentional focusing techniques (which are essentially modified versions of applied meditation strategies) that when practised and mastered allow for clearer thinking over longer periods of time.
And second, it’s vitally important that each and every employee in an organisation actually knows what’s really important. To achieve this, we help workers, at all levels of an organisation, find meaning and purpose in what they do and set up strategies for reminding themselves of these priorities on a regular basis.
It’s too easy to get distracted by seemingly urgent, but not really important time-wasters. Busy is not the same as productive or effective, so go back to basics and focus on one thing at a time.
Dr. Sharp’s latest book (published August 2008) is “100 Ways to Happiness: a Guide for Busy People” (Penguin). You can find out more about corporate programs, presentations, and coaching services at www.drhappy.com.au and www.thehappinessinstitute.com. You can also ask him questions using the Comments panel below.
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Naomi Simson writes: Always Tim…. of course I am trying to do too much. If you want to create something great – it takes focus and effort, and is likely to be inconvenient.