In our busy lives, it’s more tempting than ever to try and complete a number of tasks at once. But how effective is multitasking? Does it actually improve productivity, or does it mean that we neither focus on one thing or another?
A number of experts have questioned whether multitasking is even possible.
Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has studied multitasking extensively. He argues that rather than focusing on tasks and receiving different pieces of information simultaneously, the brain is actually just switching from one task to another very quickly.
For business founders looking to be productive and agile, it can be tempting to try and cover every aspect of the business at once. But if research from Stanford University is correct, they could be paying a heavy price.
According to Stanford’s study, people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information don’t pay attention. They also don’t control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.
In a series of experiments, the performance of a group of multitaskers was compared with a group of participants who were only focused on one job at a time.
“The low multitaskers did great,” said Eyal Ophir, a member of the research team. “The high multitaskers were doing worse.”
Keep your business ‘why’ front of mind
Polina Montano is co-founder of JOB TODAY, an app which aims to make hiring staff in the retail, hospitality and service industries – all notorious for their high churn rate – faster and more efficient.
Since its launch in late 2015, the business has enjoyed 40% year-on-year growth with business users and job seekers. There are currently over five million job seekers and 400,000 businesses using the platform.
“It’s crucial to focus on what is truly important for your business,” said Montano. “In our first year, our goals were growth, growth, growth and speed, speed, speed.”
She advises other business leaders to work smarter by doing less.
“It’s about the art of setting the right priorities, executing them, and always keeping the ‘why’ front of mind,” she said.
“For example, consider why your current task is important to the future of your business. Set a clear objective so you can define what success looks like, then translate it into a small set of KPIs – I’d recommend less than three – so you’re easily able to manage your success.”
Another alternative to inefficient multitasking is to set expectations. “Be sure to communicate your goals to both your team and your board,” she said.
“Make it very clear what they should and shouldn’t expect: what the deliverables are, why they matter and how you expect each member of the team to contribute to them. Empower your team by giving them support and space – they need to be able to act on their passion and be motivated about the business and projects they’re working on.”
A mentor can help to shape your processes
“It’s a tough game. I don’t mind hard graft, but I think I’d lost my way,” said Ryan Jackson, founder and CEO of Gemini Parking Solutions. Jackson founded the Essex-based business in 2012 and now employs 20 staff.
“Even though I’d built a small team, I still seemed to be doing everything and it was getting me down. I also kept getting sidetracked by other more exciting projects, and started to feel like the only way to go was out of the parking business.”
To curb his frustrations, Johnson took on a mentor to help him streamline his systems.
“When we looked at how the company dealt with customers, it became obvious that I was doing everything – and that doesn’t make good business sense. So we automated certain processes, spread other processes across the team and appointed new people to deal with them. We also put new quality control systems in place.”
Instead of handling every task personally, his mentor challenged him to think big and consider his vision for the future.
“So I did. And I ended up with a real statement of intent for me and the Gemini team,” he said.
“We’ll be the pioneers of a new breed of parking management specialists. We intend to revolutionise the industry by setting standards of excellence through employee development, professionalism and creativity.
“From there, the process really flows. It’s all about what needs to be done to achieve that business goal. We’ve identified the infrastructure needed to support our three-year growth plan.”
Avoid multitasking by focusing on business goals
To avoid inefficient multitasking, it’s important to remember that you, as a business leader, are in charge of your own strategy and vision.
Emma Sayle is founder and CEO of adult party brand Killing Kittens. According to Sayle, keeping a sense of perspective is crucial for achieving goals.
“I try to keep our business goals clear in my mind at all times. It’s incredibly easy to lose sight of the ultimate aim, particularly as we get involved in the small detail around us,” she said.
“Killing Kittens is now 13-years-old. I’ve always seen it as a global female empowerment brand, so I’ve kept my eyes on that vision,” she explained. “We’ve got plans far beyond just parties and events, and our focus is on growing the digital side of the business.”
Write a daily plan to prioritise tasks
For Lorna Davidson, CEO of short-term recruitment specialist RedWigWam, preparation is key if you want to stay focused and avoid multitasking. She founded Liverpool-based RedWigWam in 2014, and the company’s clients include Papa John’s, Carlsberg and Leicester Tigers.
“When you have a busy day with lots of things going on, it can be really challenging to prioritise and focus on the most important things that need doing. This can lead to a standstill where workers aren’t even sure where to start,” said Davidson.
“The most important thing I do personally – and what I try to ingrain in my team – is to plan and prepare. If you have a plan, you have a chance of delivering what’s important. I write a plan every evening for the next day and I always start the morning with the worst thing on my list. It means I definitely do it and it doesn’t roll over to the following day.
“By writing a clear list, you stop the swirling vortex of tasks in your mind. It enables you to identify the most important and urgent jobs, and these can be ticked off. It might only be a small thing, but each completed task carries a feeling of satisfaction, which gives you the boost you need to carry on.
“If there’s something that needs doing and you keep putting it off, try adding it as the first task for the next morning. That way, you’ll be prepared and it’s usually not as bad as it seems.”
Learn more about successful management behaviours.