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A few months ago I attended a networking event where I had the opportunity to hear a leader share her career journey and personal learnings and offer some advice. While she shared many excellent insights, one of her statements really hit me. She said that for years she had been “perpetually disengaged”. She had been busy trying to manage multiple tasks simultaneously while thinking she was quite successful and highly productive. However, suddenly realized she was no longer listening or truly engaged in anything that she was doing.

/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/engaged_236549.jpgThis impacted me so profoundly probably because it felt as if a mirror was held in front of my own face. If I am truly honest my “perpetual disengagement” has been going on probably for the last 12 months. In January last year I started a new role that not only had a  quite demanding scope but was also a global role in which my days typically started before 6 am and I would wake up to 80 – 100 emails that had come in overnight. Each morning I would feel the panic as I looked at my inbox seeing “urgent” items that required a response before 9am PST or 6pm CET.  However, I was already in conference calls so how was I going to deal with all these urgent responses?

Well the answer was that often I would sit on calls and answer e-mails at the same time. This became a daily occurrence and unfortunately the behavior spilled over to not only just getting me through the morning rush of email but it became the mode of operation throughout the day. It also spilled over into my personal life where I would attempt to work, do homework with my kids, and “listen” to my husband. It became abundantly clear to me that by operating this way I was being very unfair and disrespectful to those who depend on me at work and at home.

As women, I think we take pride in being able to effectively multitask, even though most of the research I see on this topic indicates that if you want to do something well, multitasking makes it impossible. It is not possible for your brain to accomplish two different things at the same time, particularly when there is some level of thought and attention that must be given. You end up missing information and do not have the focus needed to be able to recall what you need for later. Many multitaskers will tell you how efficient they are but in fact they are likely less efficient and certainly less effective than they would be if they gave their full attention to the each task at hand, one at a time.

Here’s what I have done to get re-engaged:

  1. Focus on the task at hand. Give your full attention to one task at a time and be proud of not being a multitasker
  2. When you find your mind starting to wander to the next task like it can in meetings, refocus and consciously bring yourself back to the conversation underway
  3. Close your email. Because I am often on the phone and alone for many meetings it is easy for me to become distracted by my email. So by shutting it down I am not tempted to get distracted by it and this has made a significant difference
  4. Build time into your day to deal with other tasks. I have tried to shorten my 60 minute meetings to 45 minutes to allow for time in between to get to other pressing issues. This way I can focus during other tasks because I now I have time
  5. Contribute – active contribution to a conversation forces you to be in the moment and to focus on the task at hand. Where possible have meetings in person, use video conference or telepresence. Maybe it is the Canadian in me but I can’t fathom emailing or texting in front of others. That’s just rude.

Eliminating multitasking is also healthier. It will reduce stress, increase pride in produced results and create more fulfilling and positive engagements. I wish I could say now that I have fully conquered multitasking but that would be a lie. However I do recommit each day to being more engaged then I was the previous day and as they say “sometimes just admitting it is half the battle”. If you have any advice you can share on this topic I would be grateful to learn from you.

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10 Comments

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  1. Tom Redd

    On the money Tracey….I have the same challenges and outlook should be called “LookOut” because it is like a window you “lookout” during calls or in the middle of boring task.  Close da Outlook Window or go OFFLINE and you get more done.

    Tom

    …who close my lookout window…? 😛

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  2. Kumar Akshat

    I opened this blog post in the morning, started reading it, veered towards multiple other  tasks, forgot about the blog and when I came back to finish reading it, it was afternoon. A very small but pertinent example of the effects of multi-tasking. 🙂

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  3. Ramesh Ramakrishnan

    Great note Tracey

    The key issue is to focus on outcome, then one would re-look at the approach and draw up an action plan, like you have mentioned. Talking only about multi-tasking as a great thing brings the focus mainly on the ‘activities/action’ not the ‘outcome’. It easy to get pulled into the ‘activities’ way of measuring ourselves, because its in our control and makes us look good, from ones own point of view.

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    1. Tracey Arnish Post author

      Great advice Ramesh. I also find if you focus on the outcomes you are looking to achieve this helps to keep focus and keeps me on task.

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  4. Stephen Burr

    Excellent blog Tracey and it really resonated with me.  These days, with email, text and instant messengers it is too easy to be distracted from the task in hand. 

    My CEO once said to me, “Learn to distinguish between urgent and important”.  So true … almost everything is urgent, but the trick is to work out which tasks are important!

    Of course, by reading this blog, I’ve distracted myself from the task I was doing … one day I’ll learn!!!

    Stephen

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  5. Sam Bayer

    Tracey,

    Love love love it! +1

    I’ve posted this on my company’s intranet.  I hope someone reads it during our next daily standup when they’re waiting their turn to speak.  🙂

    Sam

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  6. Naresh Kumar Malik

    Good one Tarcey

    i believe it depends on your role and experience . When you start your career its always one task because you are dedicated to your work only….but with  experience you start doing multi tasking  without realizing you are not putting full attention to the things you are doing.

    Then your attention is to move the task away from your plate rather than actually completing the task.

    Quality of work also reduces with multitasking.

    Naresh

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