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The Myth of Multitasking

by Sarah Levitt |

Who among us isn’t faced with a full plate of obligations and commitments, both at work and at home?  And who hasn’t been enticed by the promise of multitasking?  We can sit in our offices talking on the phone while simultaneously reading the emails flooding our inboxes and looking up the website of a new restaurant that just opened.  We can be more efficient!  More productive!  The problem is, multitasking doesn’t deliver.  It doesn’t alleviate stress.  Or give us a greater sense of accomplishment.  Or grant a pardon from the full plate.  In fact, most of us find that trying to multitask only creates more of the stress we’re trying to avoid.  It turns out that multitasking is a myth. 

The following 3 strategies can help to increase productivity, decrease stress, and enhance efficiency all without giving us the feeling that we’re making scrambled eggs of our brains.

 1. Do one thing at a time.  (Otherwise known as: stepping off the hamster wheel.)

The problem with running on the hamster wheel of a to-do list is that it gives the illusion of making progress.  We may feel moments of accomplishment when we cross things off, but as new things are added, it’s easy to get seduced into trying to complete an infinite list, the more quickly the better.  Most of my clients find that trying to multitask only ratchets up their stress level, and when they divert their attention to doing several things at once, they end up feeling scattered and overwhelmed.  I encourage them, no matter how busy their schedules, to bring their attention to the task at hand and to be present.  When in a meeting, BE in the meeting.  Not looking at the phone, checking email, or wondering about the next meeting.  Being present can create a sense of calm, rather than frenzy, and from that place, we can often problem solve with greater clarity and efficiency.  We’re also more creative and innovative when we’re not stressed to the max.  And, as an added bonus, presence gives those around us the valuable resource of our attention and focus.  Few things are more powerful in communication (as a managing partner, leader, salesperson, spouse, parent, or person) than being present, connected, and engaged.         

 2. Get strategic and make chunks.

The whiteboards in my office are filled with those strategic things that I think most important to my business and the specific tasks needed to complete them.  Breaking down those strategic items into smaller, bite-sized tasks makes them feel more do-able, gives me options to choose from -- because all the tasks are related to the most important strategic stuff, I can pick among them and still be doing important work -- and keeps me on track rather than flailing with overwhelm.  After chunking my tasks, I chunk my time, reserving blocks of time for these bigger strategic pieces.  That way, I’m always working on the most important things for my business in a way that gives me a sense of accomplishment and productivity rather than frenzy.  It’s a win-win.  With the big chunks taken care of, I can delegate other tasks where my input really isn’t crucial, keeping my plate from becoming too full with things that I don’t want or like to do.

3. Check your thinking as often as you check your list.

I was once on an eight hour date.  When I finally looked at my watch, I couldn’t believe how much time had passed.  Unfortunately, I’ve also been on 30 minute dates that felt like 8 hours.  What we think determines how we feel.  When dealing with a full plate, if we tell ourselves there’s not enough time to get everything done, that there’s too much to do, that it’s impossible, we’re creating a reality that feels stressful.  On the other hand, if we shift our thinking to what we have chosen to do at that time, tell ourselves that we have enough time to do the important things, that we are capable of doing what needs to be done, we might find that shift in thinking much more effective in reducing stress than scratching another item off our list.  And, in a nice twist, by orienting our thinking toward the present and positive, we’re more likely to scratch things off our lists.  When we’re not on stress overload, we’re more effective and efficient, able to see things more clearly, and work with greater concentration. 

The lure of multitasking is powerful.  It promises to eliminate feelings of being overwhelmed and give us a sense of accomplishment and peace.  But it’s a myth, and many of us are choosing to speed up by slowing down, instead.

Sarah Levitt is an executive coach and keynote speaker who helps individuals and organizations reach their greatest potential.  She speaks on employee engagement and motivation, leadership and organizational resilience, and mastering communication for improved outcomes.   Sarah offers conference keynotes, training workshops, and executive development. For more information: sarah@sarah-levitt.com or www.sarah-levitt.com

About the Author

Sarah Levitt



Sarah Levitt is an executive coach who works with senior executives to assist them in becoming magnificent leaders.  She is also a speaker whose topics include building high performing teams, leadership resilience, and The Making Magnificence Project™. 

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