Dangers of multitasking

The Dangers of Multitasking

With January gone the unmanageable wave of well-meant advice, whether you asked for it or not, seems to also have run its course.

As we attempt to draw learnings from the past year, where we yet again just about made it in one piece under the Christmas tree, the list of “10 ways to…”, “5 tips for..” or “How to … in 3 minutes” seems endlessly repetitive and unhelpful.

If indeed you are not one of these people getting up at 5am for your daily yoga routine, followed by a healthy green smoothie breakfast whilst reading the daily headlines so that you are ready to go when you hit the office, read on …

There was a time when I was so run off my feet that my computer was finding it hard to keep up with me. For every task I was planning to fulfill that day I opened a new window so that I would not forget what I set myself to achieve. At that time the majority of emails I received per day contained requests or tasks and on average I received 100 such emails.

In my quest of being a worthwhile leader an open door policy was also very important to me. I wanted to ensure the team could come to me with any issue at any time and I would help if I could.

Well, you can imagine what happened next …

The flood of emails and thus tasks never decreased. On the contrary I had the feeling that they snowballed every time I hit reply. Very much in line with the 10 tip evangelists I read from so much, I thought that multitasking and getting up at 5am would allow me to gain control and deal effectively with the requests at hand.

I started to write emails whilst on the phone or in meetings or keep the tasks that required thinking time back to be tackled rather early in the morning or after hours in the evening when the office was quiet. Lunch was a luxury. Taking time to talk was precious. The mobile phone was running hot, no matter the circumstances. But something did not work out. Instead of more efficient I became more irritable, instead of faster I became slower and my clarity became clouded.

As I multitasked my way through the day I did not realise that I had lost one of the key skills when managing people: I lost my ability to listen.

And by that I do not mean to just hear the words someone was saying. I mean to understand what moved them, what worried my colleagues and what mattered to me.

Always ten steps ahead of where I was, I multitasked my way out of the basic requirement for human interaction. The bill came promptly: My staff neither felt listened to nor taken seriously. They felt I was just doing my duty instead of being truly interested in them. I was lucky enough that we had built up an atmosphere where the team felt they could share these things. Realising I needed to change the way I was working not just for my team’s sake, but also for my own, I started to slow down considerably. I almost had to force myself to do one thing at a time and not to give into the pressure.

No more email writing whilst on the phone.
No more phone calls whilst driving.
No more double bookings as I may be able to make it to both meetings after all.

And despite the by now well-documented side effects of multitasking, I to this day have to remind myself that I am faster when I am slower. As a matter of fact collaborative team work and successful team leadership can only grow if you take the time to listen.

So let us be bold. Let us be slow and listen.