Driving to the store today I saw a slice of traditional American family life. There was a father in his front yard playing with his two sons—pretty close in age. What caught my attention was that he had a baseball mitt on, but was throwing a football to one of his children. At a closer look I saw that he was also throwing a baseball to the other son. I thought, “Guess the two kids couldn’t agree on what they wanted to do with Dad, so he is trying to satisfy both of them-and maybe showoff a bit as well.”
The dad was pretty successful meeting both the kids’ needs at the same time and then the steady rhythm of alternating back and forth between football and baseball and between the two sons had a hiccup and, you guessed it, he dropped both balls. He began again and the same pattern kept repeating. What had satisfied both kids for a while ended up a little bit of a disappointment.
That father had the best intentions. His thought process might have gone something like this, “I have a limited amount of time and two people to please. I bet I can do both and still leave myself some time to get some work done in the yard.”
Leaders sometime fall into the same trap—they have a lot to do and decide that multi-tasking is the best approach. On the surface it would seems so. You are using the same amount of time to accomplish multiple tasks, right? Well, maybe, but the question is the quality of the work and the toll on your brain.
In the article “How Multitasking Affects Productivity and Brain Health,” Kendra Cherry writes:
“Multitasking seems like a great way to get a lot done at once. While it might seem like you are accomplishing many things at once, research has shown that our brains are not nearly as good at handling multiple tasks as we like to think we are. In fact, some researchers suggest that multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40 percent!
What is it that makes multitasking such a productivity killer? It might seem like you are getting multiple things done at the same time, but what you are really doing is quickly shifting your attention and focus from one thing to the next. Switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow you down.”
The question comes down to quantity or quality and the answer can be dependent on a number of variables. Here are some things to consider:
- Identify the big ideas you are working on and the smaller projects. Have a clear idea of what they are and what is needed from you in time, effort and brainpower.
- If you are trying to work on two big ideas, it probably makes sense not to multi-task, but to arrange your schedule and identify two separate times. (Also a good reason to limit the number of big ideas you are working on at the same time)
- Consider how people may feel when they are only getting your partial attention on something that is important to them. Commit to giving the people and the project 100% of your attention for the time you are together. People feel more valued when they feel they have your attention and consideration—and it helps to build and maintain good working relationships.
Like the dad I saw with his two kids, leaders often drop the ball when they try to do too much at the same time in an effort to keep people happy. It doesn’t work. The answer lies in providing dedicated quality time and continuous support.