Well, it’s official: Your brain cannot occupy two spaces at once. According to a so-called groundbreaking study, you have a choice to make. You can elect to try to juggle numerous tasks simultaneously, or do them properly, one at a time.
This should come as a surprise to no one. After all, our columnist Bob Greenwood has been preaching from the “slow down” bible for years now. But let’s look at what the study found out about what happens when we try to act like a computer loaded up with a multitasking operating system.
The study, from the American Psychological Association, says in essence that you’re nuts if you think you can talk to a customer on the phone, deal with another in person, check on the credit status of a third, and still calculate the right price to charge for the appropriate margin. Or, for the back office reader, that you can talk to the manufacturer’s rep, monitor the financials, analyze your inventory, and work up next month’s promo all at the same time.
You may think that you’re doing the business a great favor by having so many things going on at the same time–it satisfies the wheeler-dealer in all of us–but you’re probably not, according to the study.
Instead, as you ping-pong between tasks, you may actually be hurting your productivity, because it takes time to get your head back into the next task. It takes as much as 10 minutes to reach optimum focus and gets worse as tasks get more complex. Sure you can walk and chew gum, but can you count the chews and the steps you take at the same time?
Trying to do too much at the same time means getting less done and getting it done less satisfactorily. And it’s not just a factor for the pre-computer generation to cope with. Much has been made of the so-called ability of Generations X, Y and whatever to handle multiple tasks with ease. Well, apparently that’s wrong too. The students who took part in the study fared no better. (I guess my parents were right when they said I couldn’t do my homework in front of the television.)
While some of the implications of “attention splitting” are truly serious–driving and talking on the cell are not happy bedfellows–I’m concerned at this point about what it does to the overall tenor of business. For me, it helps explain the deteriorating quality of so many of the communications I get. Maybe the person who sent it was distracted by a half dozen other tasks, but too much of what I read and listen to is incomplete and ill-conceived. How many times have you sent an e-mail, and then sent another, and another, with additional information?
Because every new issue is a distraction from the last, what this jumping between tasks breeds is a reactive strategy (see the problem, address the problem) rather than a proactive, strategic one (see the problem, consider what it says about other problems and what could be done to prevent them the next time).
The implication is that the strategy for producing excellence is to take it one step at a time. Complete one task, then move on to the next. With the geometrically expanding number of distractions, this can be tough, but it’s not impossible.
What it takes is discipline, and setting priorities. You’ll still have to get the pressing things completed, but if you pick the most critical, get it done, then move on to the next you’ll end up with better results. Which is better, 10 problems that will be solved in two days or 10 problems of which half will be solved in the first day, half solved in the second? Would you rather have 10 upset customers for two days, or five happy ones who got their answers that day and five less happy ones who got their resolution when you told them they would?
In an imperfect world, it might just be the best we can hope for.
We’ll plunge headlong into the winter season in October, with Previews of Key Industry Events, Winter Marketing Tips, and more.