If you multitask, you probably think that you’re being productive. But the truth is that you can’t accomplish two things which require you to expend mental energy at once; you can only do one at a time.
When you “multitask,” in actuality you’re constantly switching between one activity and another. In his book The Myth of Multitasking, author Dave Crenshaw calls this “switchtasking.”
Switchtasking is rapidly switching between two or more tasks, and Crenshaw’s book demonstrates how switchtasking costs time and damages relationships. Think about it: have you ever walked into someone’s office (or been called to their office) only to have them looking at their smartphone or going through documents while they’re talking to you? How did that make you feel? Do you think that person was really listening to you? Have you ever done that to someone else?
How about checking email while you’re on the phone? Were you really listening to the other caller? Did you have to return to the email after the call anyway? Have you ever been on the other end of the phone and gotten the feeling that the person on the other end wasn’t listening to you? Did it prolong the conversation? Did you have to repeat youself? What kind of impression do you think this leaves on clients?
Multitasking is a productivity killer
The fact is that switchtasking will always cost you time – you will always be less effective if you are “multitasking” then if you focus on one thing at a time.
According to a recent Harvard Business Review article on focus, when you switch from doing a primary task to doing something else, you increase the time it takes to finish the original task by 25 percent.
There are exceptions to the “no-multitasking” rule: on occasion, you can do more than one thing at a time, but only if only one of those tasks requires mental energy. One example might be listening to music while you’re on the treadmill etc. Crenshaw calls this “background tasking.” One task is the main focus while the other occurs in the background and doesn’t require your direct attention. This works best with rote tasks.
So before you decide to answer that phone or wave that associate or assistant into your office, ask: “What will the switching cost be of this interruption?” Then decide if it’s worth the cost. If not, here are some suggestions for what you can do instead:
- Set specific times when you are available for meetings or to check in with those you supervise (or ask your supervisor for a time when you can meet so you aren’t trying to catch them whenever they are in the office)
- Plan ahead: decide which tasks are priorities (more on priorities in future time management posts), and be sure you are prepared for each task before you begin
- Work uninterrupted for a block of time on high-level priorities – during these times, don’t let yourself be interrupted by drop-ins, the phone or email. If necessary, leave your office to accomplish this, or tell people you are unavailable for a 60-90 minute block of time
While most lawyers will be unable to eliminate multitasking or putting out fires entirely, reducing the amount of time spent in reactive mode and working more proactively can significantly enhance both productivity and daily job satisfaction.
For more information on the effects of multitasking, take a look at this infographic from Online Universities.