Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time

I've previously written about multitasking and work induced attention deficit disorder.

I've also written about the burden of having two workdays every 24 hours - one for meetings and one for email 

Yesterday, I was sent a post from the Harvard Business Review that summarizes these issues very well.

It highlights the problem and a series of solutions.

Nearly half of employees report the overwhelming stress and burden of their current jobs, not based on the hours they work, but the volume of multitasking - too many simultaneous inputs in too little time.  They've lost the sense of a beginning, middle, and an end to their day, their tasks and their projects.  There is no work/life boundary.

As a case in point, I'm writing now while doing email and listening to a Harvard School of Public Health eHealth symposium.   Am I being more productive or just doing a greater quantity of work with less quality?

The author of the post points to evidence that multi-tasking increases the time to finish a task by 25%.  He also notes that our energy reserves are depleted by a constant state of post traumatic stress induced by our continuous connectivity.

He suggests three strategies

1.  Rather than multi-task, reduce meeting times to 45 minutes, leaving 15 minutes for email catchup and transition.

2.  Do not expect and do not support the notion that email should be a real time activity.

3.  Take breaks and ensure there are boundaries between work and non-work activities.

He suggests three personal best practices

1.  Do your most important task of the day without interruption first thing in the morning.   That's what I've done for years.

2.   Create specific dedicated time for long term, creative thinking.

3.   Take vacations.

A great post.  Unless all of us declare that the multi-tasking emperor has no clothes, continuous partial attention will only get worse.


Akshay Kapur said...

As noted in one of the letters in The Economist: "Henry David Thoreau got it right 150 years ago: 'Men have become the tools of their tools' (Sent from my iPhone)

Anonymous said...

Nice write-up John. I just read the H-R article and agree with it totally. I try to do some of these recommendations now, but of course it's always a challenge to get the rest of the organization to break it's bad habits.

Medical Quack said...

Well said!

Steve Fox said...

John, I couldnt agree more.
For all the great advances that technology has given us, it has robbed us of work/life balance and quality contacts with our colleagues. Too many times in the day I feel compelled to respond with brevity simply to move on to the next email or note. Too many dinners missed at home and those that I do make it home for are spent staring at a blackberry or an iphone in between bites of food and updates on what happened at school that day.
Lets do more to take control of our technology and use it as a tool, not as a substitute for human interaction.
If that fails, you and I can multi task in future meetings, half listening to the meeting content, but at least we will not have open messages in our inbox.
At least not for another 30 seconds.

Jim Thompson MD said...

I'm tickled this blog is the most important thing (based on its 3A post time here in Colorado), because it's such a great blog.

Or is it the last thing, and you didn't make it to bed yet?

Mike Mai said...

Do the most important task in the morning without any interruption is the way to go. When I get distracted in the morning, the rest of the day is basically wasted. Oh, and breaks are definitely needed throughout the day, take a walk and get some sun. Health takes importance over everything else.