There is plenty of research stating the hazards of multitasking. The reality, however, is that we rarely have a choice. The general burdens of leadership with the 24/7 “convenience” of technology do not allow for us to do one thing at a time. Even the drummer for a rock band cannot avoid multitasking.
In a recent show in St. Augustine, Florida, the band Weezer was performing their hit song “Beverly Hills.” While the band played, a fan unintentionally threw a frisbee at the drummer, Patrick Wilson. He caught the frisbee mid-song while continuing to play. Patrick did not miss a beat.
Drummers by nature are multitakers. Their ability to keep a steady beat with each hand and foot is a skill that many of us do not have. Leaders need the same (figurative) ability.
Leaders juggle multiple priorities, personalities, and projects. There are frequent interruptions that are beyond our control and a mounting list of things that must get done. We listen to a conference call while responding to emails and inhaling our lunch because doing any one of these things by itself does not seem like an efficient use of time.
Let’s be clear, multitasking is a myth. Humans are only capable of thinking about one thing at a time. Multitasking is really the ability to quickly jump from topic to topic. It may seem like you’re doing many things at once, but really your focus is bouncing around at a pace that only makes it feel that way.
Jumping back an forth between tasks has it’s perils. Clifford Nash, a Harvard professor, discusses the ‘task switch cost’ associated with shutting down one part of your brain so as to utilize another part for the second task. This expends additional mental energy and can lead to mistakes and stress.
This blog is about practical tips that can make us better leaders. So, instead of advocating against multitasking, consider a few of the tips so you can multitask better.
There’s a time and place for multitasking. Know which tasks require your focused attention.
Eye contact matters. If someone walks into your office either ask them to come back or stop what you’re doing. Your thoughts may be on the ten projects on your desk but you can at least appear to have interpersonal skills.
Pay attention to the backspace. If you are typing an email while listening to a podcast, how often are you deleting misspellings? If it’s a continuous problem, pause the podcast so you can focus. It’ll get done faster and you won’t miss a word of your show.
Shut it down. It may sound sacrilegious, but you can close down your email for a few minutes if the “you have a message” is distracting from what you are trying to do.
Next time you feel overwhelmed, Weezer’s drummer has one more lesson. When he caught the frisbee, he didn’t yell at the audience or refuse to play until someone apologized. He played it off in a way that made him an internet sensation. Avoid giving your team an attitude because you are inundated with work. They may even be able to help.