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Reduce Costly Errors - Avoid Multitasking.

June 06 2012

Chunk your time and reduce costly errors.

I was recently speaking on the phone to a friend who was driving. About ten minutes into our conversation, I heard, “I don’t believe it. I just drove home, and I meant to drive to the post office. What an idiot I am.” Can you relate? This is a simple example of multitasking gone wrong. Though this mistake only cost my friend a few minutes of driving, multitasking or partial attention at work can be more costly.

Recent studies show that the so-called ability to multitask is not something to strive for. The fact is we cannot do two cognitively intensive tasks at the same time; our brains are not wired that way. In fact, multitasking is a computer term that was used to describe a computer’s ability to perform multiple functions at the same time. My first IBM computer, though advanced at the time, was basically a glorified word processor. I could type and format a paper, but my IBM could not spell or grammar check while I worked. I had to actually activate a separate program to perform a spelling and grammar check. Today as I’m typing, I see red lines and green lines appear, and my Word program autocorrects my spelling for me. My computer is multitasking; it has that capacity.

I know many think they can multitask, but they can’t. No one can. Imagine you are driving somewhere, and you realize you’re lost. What do you do? Most people turn down the radio. Why? It’s not like Bono is sitting on the dashboard and you can’t see around him. No, you need to focus. The distraction of a beat, lyrics, and changing cadence are too much for your brain to process while you are problem-solving.
Work is one of the worst places to get work done. With email dinging, phones ringing or vibrating, instant messages flashing, and people stopping by to talk, it is impossible to actually get into any type of rhythm. Only by getting into a rhythm do we make great strides in our workday.

In our next newsletter, I will elaborate on some recent multitasking studies, but for now, I want you to strive to perform one task at a time. Make it your goal to chunk a segment of the day dedicated to the performance of one task. Even if means you start with just one fifteen-minute chunk, start today. You’ll want to log off of the network, email, and IM and close your door or slip away to an unused conference room. Now work on just that task, and then evaluate if you were able to get more done than if you were at your desk with your distractions.

Chunking your day will help you get more done, help preserve your sanity, and also help protect your reputation as a professional. How so? Have you ever received a reply to one of your emails and just for fun, reread your original communication? Were you surprised to discover that your grammar, sentence structure, and word choice were wanting? This happens because when we are multitasking, we are not giving one task our full attention and as a result we can slip.

I once was in the process of writing an email to a customer when someone popped into my office and asked if I was going to take a vacation day the following week. After finished my email, I decided to quickly proofread it. Guess what word magically (and tragically) appeared in my email? VACATION! Without even thinking, my brain inserted the word I heard my colleague say to me while I was typing. The facts are clear: when we multitask we are more prone to make mistakes and errors.

Get more done, stay focused, and prevent errors and mistakes by chunking your time. Find out how you and your team can get organized here.

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