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Multitasking backlash: Experts advise making small changes to break the habit

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FARGO – Multitasking might be the strategy many of us have used for years to keep up with fast-paced jobs, a growing list of daily responsibilities or even juggling time with the kids.

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But Dawn Kaiser has some tough love for the wannabe multitaskers: just because we have worked on several tasks at once doesn’t mean we should.

“It doesn’t mean you’re good at it,” said Kaiser, a corporate trainer with The Village Business Institute in Fargo. “I can sing, too, but nobody wants to hear me sing.”

Breaking away from our reliance on it isn’t easy, she said – it’s a habit that has to be unlearned, which doesn’t happen overnight.

Microsoft looked into the issue in 2007, reporting a group of its workers took an average of 15 minutes to return to important tasks after getting distracted by emails or text messages.

The American Psychological Association, too, found multitasking – especially on several complex tasks at once – “takes a toll” on productivity, according to a 2006 paper that summarized several studies from the 1990s and early 2000s. The undeniable conclusion, according to that paper, is the brain simply isn’t designed for “heavy-duty multitasking.”

Still, professional organizer and AreaVoices blogger Melissa Schmalenberger, also known as “Ms. Simplicity,” said it’s easy to understand why so many of us try to multitask despite a growing mountain of evidence it doesn’t work.

“The media has told us it’s a good thing, so I think we have all been led to believe that it works,” she said.

As companies have downsized while asking employees to take on more responsibilities and get more done in less time, Schmalenberger said we’re pressured to work better than ever. While that leads us to believe we can get through the work faster by doing several things at once – and some even see this constant busy cycle as a “badge of honor” – she said there are ways to break the bad habit and make positive changes.

“We need to make better use of our time,” she said. “We all have the same 24 hours in a day or the same eight hours in a workday, and it’s up to us to choose how to use them.”

Prioritize

Call center employees and receptionists need to multitask, talking on the phone with customers while also transferring calls and doing computer work.

But most of us don’t have jobs that truly require this, Kaiser said. Instead, we have a variety of responsibilities we’re supposed to do one at a time – unitasking – or several we switch between in a day.

That’s why she tells clients to look at the job requirements and pick out their actual priorities to focus on those tasks. She stresses the “80-20 rule” – 20 percent of our work will result in 80 percent of our productivity – and advises working toward the greatest return for the person and the company.

If they encounter resistance when trying to make this change, Kaiser suggests clarifying with the boss or supervisor what is expected so everyone agrees on the most important things to do.

It’s beneficial to work on tasks in order of importance and start the day by accomplishing the top priority, said Tonya Stende, chief engagement officer with the Dale Carnegie Business Group.

“Also, at times we need to learn to say no so we can really focus on what is important in our career or home life,” she said.

Fill the schedule

Use an online calendar or paper planner – and not just for important meetings.

Schmalenberger said her husband schedules out his downtime, blocking off an hour for answering emails or catching up on paperwork, which helps him stay prepared and on-task. Even scheduling the “interruptions,” such as setting aside 15 minutes during lunch to scroll through Facebook or respond to texts, could prevent those little things from becoming bigger distractions.

A related tip is to “batch” similar tasks, Kaiser said. For example, set aside time in the day to return phone calls or reply to emails – getting it all done in a matter of minutes without losing focus later.

“Your mind kind of gets in a groove and it actually goes faster,” she said.

Practice the 90/10

This one also helps with procrastination, according to Kaiser.

If there’s a dreaded or complicated task that needs to get done, work on it for 90 minutes before taking a 10-minute break. The break could be grabbing a cup of coffee or just doing a less mentally focused activity, such as walking around the office.

“Our body is full of energy, and it continues to get drained the more and more we just sit still,” Kaiser said. “One of the great ways to re-energize yourself is just to get up, move around and do something for a couple minutes, and then come back to the tasks.”

Setting a timer can help us make progress on difficult tasks, too, Schmalenberger said. And don’t be afraid to reward yourself after finishing a big project – she prefers to get a massage, and said it makes sense to find a way to reward ourselves for crossing off part of the to-do list.

Distraction-free zones

Close the office door, if possible, to keep on track, Schmalenberger said. But cubicle workers, too, can send a clear signal to their colleagues if they’re busy and can’t be distracted.

She suggests using a simple color-based system that only requires three colors of paper. Hang a green sheet of paper on the back of a laptop or cubicle wall to tell co-workers you’re available to talk; yellow to say “proceed with caution”; and red to let them know this isn’t a good time.

“Creating an environment where people know in your workspace when is an appropriate time to interrupt you is really important,” she said.

Self-discipline

Even after taking these steps, it’s easier than ever to get derailed right back into multitasking because of smartphones, tablets and all the other Internet-connected devices that instantly alert us to Facebook messages or emails.

That’s why it ultimately comes down to self-control, according to Schmalenberger.

Turning off the phone’s Internet connection for a couple of hours at a time can eliminate those distractions and let us focus on the work we need to do, she said.

Stende, too, said we need to set boundaries, especially in an era of being connected to work 24/7.

“It is beneficial to stay ‘plugged in’ into work so we can stay caught up, but we can also pay a price with our families and friends,” she said. “If we get a work email that can frustrate us in the evening, it can influence our behaviors at home.”

But it’s not just new technology – the old-fashioned candy dish at your desk could be a problem if it means 10 co-workers walk up each day to get a piece of candy and make conversation.

Making these changes can be hard, Kaiser said, but it helps to realize what we’re really doing when we break the multitasking cycle – taking care of ourselves by becoming more productive and less stressed.

“You’ll have people go, ‘Absolutely,’ and you’ll have others go, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ ” she said. “But who’s got the choice? What choices do you want to make in your life?”

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Ryan Johnson
After four years of covering news for the Grand Forks Herald and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Ryan Johnson has been a features reporter for The Forum's Variety section since 2013. His prior beats included politics, business, city government and higher education. Johnson is a 2008 alumnus of the University of North Dakota. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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