Strategies for Avoiding Multi-Tasking Mayhem

September 12, 2014

losing focus

Are you noticing that little things are starting to fall through the cracks? Do you find yourself trying to recall the key points of the last conference call you had? Are you trying to get that last email done as the client is coming around the corner to greet you for the meeting? You are a victim of multi-tasking mayhem and may not even be aware of the cost to your effectiveness.

When the concept of multi-tasking comes up, it is often described as doing more than one thing at once. In fact, it is not only doing more than one thing at once, it also includes switching tasks in rapid order. With increasing competitive pressure in the marketplace, the temptation to try to get more done in less time drives our tendencies to multi-task. Studies show that when multi-tasking, productivity drops an average of 40% and we become more susceptible to distraction which leaves us unable to be fully present to the work we are doing and the people with whom we are interacting. As importantly, for this age of innovation, those who multi-task are actually less creative in their thinking and their solutions. When we operate in multi-tasking mayhem, we not only become less effective, we run the risk of diluting the meaning and purpose of our work. Yet some people continue to wear their ability to multi-task as a badge of honor.

Moving from mayhem to meaningful productivity

How do we move out of mayhem into meaningful productivity?

Make time for reflection

One of the most overlooked distinctions between good leaders and great leaders, between good teams and great teams, is their commitment to reflect. It is counterintuitive to consider that slowing down to reflect actually increases effectiveness. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. A working paper by Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano of Harvard Business School, Giada Di Stefano of HEC Paris, and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina, shows that reflection actually boosts performance. In one of their studies, the group that reflected on the assigned tasks experienced a 22.8% increase in performance over the control group.

When we make reflection a priority we begin to experience its value. Many of my clients have experienced great results when they have opted to integrate a reflection practice into their daily routine and with their teams. They ask themselves and their teams those provocative questions that move the conversation and the work forward; questions that go beyond what worked,  what didn’t and why? Questions including, what were the critical factors that influenced the outcome? Where have we been successful with this before? What learnings can we translate from other situations into this one or from this one to others? What was your piece of the action in contributing to the outcome? What might you do differently going forward? Make a commitment to build in reflection time without distractions. Ask the questions that matter, especially if the answers to some of those questions cause discomfort. It is in the discomfort where the greatest learnings lie. Make team reflection a non-negotiable process step as projects are launched, in update meetings, and at the close of an initiative.

Reflection provides the platform for better understanding what matters, is working….or not. It affords the opportunity to take a step back and take in the full strategic view versus remaining mired in the details and distractions. Reflection supports the ability to respond to an increasingly changing landscape with greater ease and agility. It supports the evolution of our leadership and becomes the launch pad for dialogue that drives trusted relationships and impactful results.

Exercise self-discipline for increased focus

Where you focus is what you get. What is the story you hear yourself telling most often about your work and your life? The answers to this question often include “we are so busy, stressed, in endless meetings, no time for fun or family.” Now ask yourself, what is the story you want to be telling?  What changes are you willing to make to move into the realization of that story? When our self-talk is focused on how much we have to do in so little time, we actually promote greater stress. It is similar to when we are thinking about buying a car and we begin focusing on the fact that we may want a red car. Suddenly, we are seeing red cars everywhere. Where you focus is what you get. Begin to change the conversation you have with yourself. Listen to your self-talk and change it to one of success versus sabotage.

Shifting focus away from restless productivity allows us to move from mayhem to meaningful work. It is not easy. Sometimes avoiding distraction is the hardest work we have to do in a day. Increased focus requires self-discipline to remove distractions so that we are clear and focused in the work we are doing and conversations we are having.

Tips for increasing your focus:

  1. Just do it. Determine when you are most productive during the day. Remove distractions such as sound from incoming emails and phones. Let others know that this is the time you use for focused and creative thinking.
  2. Re-evaluate your “to-do” list. Follow the 80/20 rule. Look at your list and ask yourself, “What really matters here?” What is the 20% on your list that will give you 80% of your results? Then focus on those things.
  3. Pay attention to brain drain. The brain requires rest to function at its best. Studies show that energy and effectiveness wane if you work more than two hours without a 10-15 minute break. It is easier for us to become more distracted when the brain is fatigued.
  4. Manage your energy by ensuring that you get enough sleep, exercise and pay attention to your intake of sugar and caffeine.
  5. Focus on one thing at a time.

Delegate Artfully

We fall into the trap of multi-tasking, in part, because we have too much to do. More organizations are striving to do more with less and the impetus for multi-tasking increases. An additional strategy for moving from mayhem to meaningful work is to consider how work is being allocated. Inspirational leaders are better leveraging the strengths and tapping the interests of those they are leading. They are asking themselves:

  • Do I need to do this work? Are there others that can partner with me?
  • Who has the strengths and interest for this work?
  • Who might benefit from this work as a development opportunity?
  • How can I broaden the lens to include people from other parts of my team or even other teams?

In addition to identifying who can do the work, effective leaders are conscious of how they delegate the work to minimize the boomerang effect of the work coming back to them. They provide descriptions of:

  • A definition of success
  • The form in which they want the work
  • The context for who and how it will be used
  • The scope of decision-making authority of those to whom they are delegating
  • When the work needs to be completed
  • Process for progress checks

When we delegate artfully, the result is that there is more time for focused efforts and strategic thinking. Team members are challenged and more fully engaged.

Moving away from multi-tasking mayhem requires a commitment to reflect, self-discipline for increased focus, and artful delegation for maximum capacity. Making a commitment to break the multi-tasking habit will support the realization of your new story and the quest for increased effectiveness and greater results. Most importantly, doing so will allow you to be fully present, both in your chosen work, and in your life as a whole.

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About The Author

Gail Angelo is a leader of leaders: equipped with an extraordinarily intuitive, yet practical approach that enables those she works with to move from wishing and hoping to doing and attaining - from boring to bold - Gail empowers her clients to act as the owners of their leadership goals. Her experience and powers of perception allow her to help executives identify their true strengths, eliminate negativity and create strategies with clear action steps that lead to success and fulfillment for her clients. For more information or to contact Gail, please visit

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    This is an interesting subject that helps people taking them to another dimension and have a work perspective of doing tasks in a efficient way taking into account time management to deliver a productive result.

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