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Information overload

Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy. We tend to believe that by doing several things at the same time we can better handle the information rushing toward us and get more done. Unfortunately, current research indicates the opposite: multitasking unequivocally damages productivity. Email is both a positive and a negative. People continually distracted by emails and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate without interruption. And juggling many tasks makes us less creative and productive than those who do one thing at a time.

Being busy, has become a status symbol. Most people think the solution is simply to work harder and faster. Unfortunately, we’re not doing physical labor where long hours and speed improvements can make a meaningful difference in the amount of work accomplished. We need to think, concentrate, and find insights that allow us to deliver in a knowledge economy. Multitasking does not make us an office superhero (it stresses us—and those working with us—out).

The root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. It comes pre-packaged with constraints. Switching between tasks, especially complex tasks, makes us startlingly less efficient. Nick Carr, in The Shallows, argues there is a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is also turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers. Velocity is replacing thought and reflection.

So if multitasking isn’t the answer, what is? Mckinsey tries to answer that question in an article a friend just sent me:

In our conversations with CEOs and other executives trying to cope, we heard repeatedly about some fairly basic strategies that aren’t very different in spirit from the ones Drucker described more than 40 years ago: some combination of focusing, filtering, and forgetting. The challenge for these executives, and all of us, is that executing such strategies in an always-on environment is harder than it was when Drucker was writing. It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and we can’t do it alone: in our teams and across the whole organization, we need to establish a set of norms that support a more productive way of working.

…We are at risk of moving toward an ever less thoughtful and creative professional reality unless we stop now to redesign our working norms.

First, we need to acknowledge and reevaluate the mind-sets that attach us to our current patterns of behavior. We have to admit, for example, that we do feel satisfied when we can respond quickly to requests and that doing so somewhat validates our desire to feel so necessary to the business that we rarely switch off. There’s nothing wrong with these feelings, but we need to consider them alongside their measurable cost to our long-term effectiveness. No one would argue that burning up all of a company’s resources is a good strategy for long-term success, and that is equally true of its leaders and their mental resources.

Second, leaders need to become more ruthless than ever about stepping back from all but the areas that they alone must address. There’s some effort involved in choosing which areas to delegate; it takes skill in coaching others to handle tasks effectively and clarity of expectations on both sides. But with those things in place, a more mindful division of labor creates more time for leaders’ focused reflections on the most critical issues and also develops a stronger bench of talent.

Finally, to truly make this approach work, leaders have to redesign working norms together with their teams. One person, even a CEO, cannot do that alone—who wants to be the sole person on the senior team who leaves the smart phone behind when he or she goes on vacation? Absent some explicit discussion, that kind of action could be taken as a lack of commitment to the business, not as a productive attempt to disconnect and recharge. So we encourage leaders and their teams to discuss openly how they choose to focus, filter, and forget; how they support each other in creating the necessary time and space to perform at their best; and how they enable others, throughout the organization, to do the same. This conversation can also be the right starting point for a deeper look at the information and technology needs of all the company’s knowledge workers.

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If you know someone who multitasks like crazy but needs help send them a copy of Crazy Busy. Edward Hallowell, the author, is a psychiatrist with Attention Deficit Disorder, and he has spent years working on practical solutions to help people being overloaded by too many demands on their time and energy.

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