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Don’t Maximize Your Multitasking -- Optimize It

Don’t Maximize Your Multitasking -- Optimize It

Multitasking is a way of work and life for virtually everyone reading this article -- or at least scanning it while answering a chirping cellphone.

Switching your attention rapidly among projects and communications media, when done judiciously, is stimulating and provides doses of variety that help keep you engaged and up-to-date with all your collaborators.

But for many of us, multitasking triggers the obsessive, and when taken to technological extremes, it becomes overwhelming and inefficient. With so many technologies available for working and communicating -- from mobile phones and BlackBerries to wireless laptops and instant messaging -- it’s hard to stay focused on the goal: to optimize multitasking, not maximize it. Here are some ideas about how to do that:

Question Interruption

Don’t fall into the trap of automatically shifting your attention to the nanotask that has come at you most recently. If, like many of us, you’re already a compulsive new-message seeker, deprogram yourself by setting rules for how often you check email and the hours you’re on IM. And be a good human and turn off your gadgets while you’re face-to-face with another human.

Glom It

Consider these two strategies as you organize your day: Cluster tasks that are similar in subject matter (for example, work for Client X) and glom together communications to-dos that will be executed via the same medium (for example, phone calls). Even the best and brightest among us lose cognitive momentum when we change contexts.

Sacred Hour

Set aside a time period each day or week to work on one project that requires uninterrupted stretches of engagement by higher centers of the brain. A nuclear plant doesn’t reach maximum power in a minute, and neither does your prefrontal cortex when you’re writing a sensitive report or grokking a complex spreadsheet. Escape into a server closet with your laptop if you must.

Manage Up

Meet your boss’s expectations about responsiveness to her instructions and queries, but push back early and consistently when her overzealousness diminishes your effectiveness. Yes, this is difficult. But if you don’t question the efficiency of answering your boss’s hourly queries on a small project that’s due in six months, you’ll never know how much less distracted and more productive you could be.

Teach Your Colleagues Well

By example, teach everyone you work with (including peers, subordinates, bosses and clients) that they can rely on you even if you don’t respond immediately to all communications, and even if you phone to answer an IM, because sometimes it’s just as effective and more efficient. In many cases, timely responses need not be instantaneous.

Much Ado About To-Dos

Scheduling your days may look purely like an exercise in time management, but it’s also a great opportunity to optimize your multitasking so that you don’t have to shift gears more often than necessary. Before you leave the office each day, set your schedule for the next day, grouping like tasks together.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

There’s a lot of great thinking out there about how to manage your multitasking so that it doesn’t take over your brain and sap your effectiveness. Start by reading about the classic study from the American Psychological Association showing how shifting mental gears can have high costs in terms of lost productivity. Temper your urge to diverge by reading Margaret Heffernan’s blog post on the dark side of multitasking. And keep up with productivity blogs like Lifehacker.

Is there a nugget in this article that you’d like to put on your to-do list? Make a note now, while you’re still thinking about it. That’ll be one less item for your multitasking brain to track.

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