It seems that one of the must-haves that many employers desire, may not be such a desirable after all. Recently, I read an article in Inc magazine by Travis Bradberry, titled The Real Harm in Multitasking. Interestingly, the next day I came across a similar piece by Peter Bregman in HBR, How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking. Maybe it’s time to rethink our addiction to multitasking.

Multitasking is one of the top three competencies my clients look for during the hiring process. Some research discussed in the two articles mentioned above is troubling:

“Research shows that heavy multitaskers are less competent at doing several things at once than light multitaskers.” (Bregman)

“Researchers at the University of Sussex in the U.K. compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) with MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.” (Bradberry)

What does this mean for the average employer and employee? Short term gain for long term pain.

It may be beneficial for superstar employee Susan to send an email while listening in on a conference call and watching a video. But longer term, if she loses some of her cognitive and emotional control (also known as EQ), Susan will also lose her superstar status.

The solution? There is no magic here.

First, we have a new generation raised on electronic devices. These are multitasking wizards. Will their brains naturally adapt over time, perhaps even strengthen through multitasking-mania? That would be an interesting study.

For the rest of us, who didn’t have an iPad at three years old, multitasking is a bigger risk over the long term. However, there’s much to be said for multitasking if it’s well managed. And there’s only one way to reduce and better manage multitasking: create a plan and stick to the plan.

Create a Plan

Start high level. Set your monthly goals. From there, create weekly plans, then daily plans. Break up the day into bite-sized chunks of time with purpose. I recommend 30 or 60-minute time slots. The shorter the time, the more you will force yourself (in a good way) to produce results.

In your plan, create a specific time block to check for messages and make phone calls. Set aside a block for paperwork, another for email. Allow certain hours for meetings.

Strategically choose your best time of the day to tackle tough projects. Are you full of vigour at 8am? Use that time for work that requires you to be “on”, or work that requires your full thinking power.

Does 2pm feel like nap time? Plan to handle the more routine tasks for 30 minutes.

Stick to the Plan – the Tough Part

There are a few things you can do to help yourself:

  • Keep your plan visible at all times, as a reminder of what to focus on and when.
  • Put your cell phone on silent (yes, this one hurts). Put it out of sight if necessary.
  • Turn off the email program on your laptop. Leave it off until it’s time in your plan to deal with email.
  • Block your shared calendar for certain hours in the day. This is particularly important for the hours you’ve set aside as your “full thinking power” time. Colleagues will see your blocked calendar, and find a better time to meet with you.
  • Allow for down time. Consider the last 5 minutes of each hour as time to take a walk, grab a coffee, chat with a coworker, call home. The key to this is not allowing 5 minutes to slip into 25 minutes.
  • Use the last bits of your day to plan for tomorrow. Do this daily. You’ll go home significantly less stressed, and start the next day feeling much more confident.

What About Unplanned Interruptions?

This isn’t utopia, stuff happens. If an interruption breaks into your planned day, and it must (must!) be handled immediately, then do it with your full attention. Complete it and go back to your plan. You’ll likely have to re-prioritize the remainder of your day, and move some items to tomorrow’s plan.

You will find that creating a daily plan becomes easier and quicker the more you do it. Your monthly goals become more focused and attainable as you stick to each day’s plan.

Most importantly, you will become more productive in both the short and long term. And isn’t that the whole point of the multitasking buzzword?