At the last World Economic Forum, Yahoo! (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer shared that she checks her smartphone more than 150 times a day. It was a proud admission that feeds the myth that multitasking is the new modus operandi for smart, connected leaders. In fact, research has shown we work better when we concentrate on one thing at a time.
The myth persists, however, that multitasking is the best way to work. Peruse any job website and you’ll find literally thousands of descriptions making it clear that those who can’t handle “multitasking” need not apply.
It makes sense that companies want their managers and employees to excel at dividing their attention across multiple projects. Yet there is little to no scientific proof that multitasking enhances performance, and real evidence that dividing one’s attention might actually be detrimental.
Through multiple studies and experiments, leading researchers such as the late Stanford professor Clifford Nass have determined that our minds function best when concentrating on a single task. For instance, when we try to talk on the phone and work on the computer simultaneously, neither task is done as well as it would be if we were only doing one at a time. Dividing our attention means our performance and the quality of our work suffer.
Counter to what you may hear from digerati like Mayer, “multitaskers are terrible at every single aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information, they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized, and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another,” Nass discovered.
The opposite of multitasking, of course, is focusing on a single task. It’s a lost art. When alone or in meetings, it seems that our Pavlovian urge to multitask is often overpowering. Yet, even wired leaders like Douglas Merrill, former head of engineering at Google (GOOG), have strongly advocated for focusing on one thing at a time.
Here are four ideas to help you develop a single-minded concentration on one task:
Give up on multitasking
It’s nearly impossible to do effectively. So close the apps. Shut down the texting, and reimagine your relationship with thinking.
Go after the hardest task first thing in the morning, like that difficult analytical project you would normally work on at various stages throughout the day. You’ll realize that concentration and focus in the morning can make it your most productive time of the day.
Establish a rule for your team meetings
Without setting boundaries, expect little to happen but chaos as the use of personal technology continuously interrupts collaboration. Talk with your team about the power of focus and how meetings will work better with “laptops down or off.” Keep people engaged and have a listening rule where anyone can be called upon to “play back” the story of any one meeting, as though they were facilitating the discussion.
Give yourself permission to think and be alone
Colin Powell would close his door to read and think for hours before he would offer his perspective on global issues. Thomas Edison would fish off a dock with no bait on the line so he could be alone with his thoughts. Jim Henson would go for walks and sit under a tree for hours to dream. Your best ideas and deepest insights will come when detached from your everyday routine. Seek alone time and keep it sacred on your calendar.
Remember, companies hire employees to help animate and implement their ideas. The real purpose of your employment lies in your intellectual capital: the thoughts you have and the ideas you generate. Multitasking only detracts from this.
Allow room for your own ideas to surface, and distinguish yourself from your co-workers. And, while you’re at it, please remove “multitasking” from the skills section of your résumé. Replace it with “single-tasking thinker and leader.”