We’re all aware of the pull of the flashing light on a smartphone. I’ve got an alert! Awesome! Someone wants me for something and I must check it now!
All too often my alerts turn out to be a mundane comment on someone else’s Facebook post or the essential information that Google Player has just finished updating. But that doesn’t stop me wanting to read them as soon as I see the light or hear my phone vibrate against the desk.
This is low level multitasking, but it still breaks my concentration. The APA summarizes research from a number of psychologists and points out that even the brief shifts between tasks like this can cost 40% of someone’s productive time.
In my role as a team manager, I can’t afford for productivity to drop by that much. Project work, however, is complex, often involving multiple strands and peaks and troughs of work. And most of the time your team is working on more than one project.
“What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task,” writes neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin in his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. “Two bad things happen as a result: We don’t devote enough attention to any one thing, and we decrease the quality of attention applied to any task.” In the extract of his book published on Strategy+Business he goes on: “When we do one thing—uni-task—there are beneficial changes in the brain’s daydreaming network and increased connectivity. Among other things, this is believed to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease.”
So ditching the multitasking has health benefits and productivity benefits. Moving beyond the distractions that destroy productivity day-to-day like the smartphone, how do you keep your team focused on one task at a time? Here are four ways to avoid multitasking your team.
1. Set Clear Priorities
Today it feels like everyone at work has a To Do list a mile long. That’s fine, as long as they know what is a priority so they can focus on that.
Your job is to make sure that the priority they afford to the task aligns with your overall goals and the business needs. Check in with the team and make sure that they know what should be top of the list every morning.
2. Review Their Task Assignments
Where you can, make sure that there is a common thread woven through the workload of people assigned to multiple projects. This could be the stakeholders they are working with or the tools they are using.
Then, even if they do have to switch between activities the burden on their brain is lower as there is a thematic link between what they need to do. In fact, they may even be able to find synergies to the point where the work flows naturally and doesn’t feel too disconnected.
It’s not always possible to do this, because your project workload and the people who are allocated to tasks will differ according to business priorities and availability. But where you can, try to keep people assigned to related projects and tasks.
3. Check Their Overall Workload
People are more inclined to multitask when they have too much to do. There’s a notion that the more you juggle, the more you’ll get done, even when the research into productivity points to exactly the opposite.
Make sure that your team members are not overloaded by assessing their overall workload. They should be allocated between 80-100% of their time. The resource management tools you use should flag if someone is allocated more than this. It’s a real sign that they have been given too much work and are likely to struggle – and part of that struggle will be multitasking under the impression that they can get through their work more successfully like that.
If someone on your team is over-allocated, move some of their work to a colleague or stretch out the timescales so they don’t have to complete so many tasks at once.
4. Don’t Be Part of the Problem
I have worked with managers who set clear priorities and make sure that I have appropriate tasks in an appropriate timescale so that I’m not overloaded. So far, so best practice. And then they stand at my desk or give me a ring and say: “Could you take a look at this project? I need a feasibility study on this by Monday.” Or: “Are you able to come to a meeting with me this afternoon? We really need your expertise,” when you know the answer has to be, “Yes.”
OK, sometimes there are urgent tasks that you will need help with. Business priorities can be fluid and we all know that a quick pivot is sometimes required. You and the team need to be flexible but you also need to be respectful of their time. If you do have to change their workload and ask them to switch to another task, let them know what you expect them to do with their current priorities. For example, if you pull them into producing a feasibility study, they won’t be able to hit their deadlines for tasks at the same time, so you’ll need to:
- push out those deadlines until the feasibility work is finished; or
- give the tasks to someone else to finish; or
- delay the feasibility study if their current work is more important.
Expecting them to multitask and take more on is just going to leave you with poor quality work on both counts.
Project work – and knowledge work in general – requires individuals to juggle multiple strands of activity and often several projects at once. True multitasking is counterproductive so do what you can to prioritize, set clear task assignments, ensure you are not overloading your team and steer clear of making the problem worse. Then your team will be able to get their heads down and crack on with their projects, knowing you are there to back them up if they need it.
In fairness, and to offer a rebuttal, no less an authority on project management than Jennifer Bridges, PMP, offers a thoughtful counter below in the embedded video, “Project Management Multitasking Tools: How to Multitask as a Project Manager.”
If you have the right tool for the job then you’re going to remain focused on the task at hand, and that’s what ProjectManager.com provides: a collaborative, robust online suite of dynamic features made for the leader of a project. Try it out for 30 days with this free trial.