Recession-Proof Your Career
Thus began the inexorable decline of uni-tasking.
From Artisans to Multi-Taskers Not to overly romanticize the past, but there have been periods when craftsmen (and women) practiced their unique trades one step at a time. These artisans--in every field from metal-work, to glass blowing, to building and beyond--often formed guilds. Here they would exchange the secrets of their professions, and teach new practitioners the ways of their crafts under apprenticeships that would last for years.
Compare this to today's office environment. Where you often receive minimal training on how best to do your job. Where part way through that complicated media plan you are piecing together, your phone rings, followed by your Blackberry buzzing, then yet another interruption from that suit who thinks that his client is the only one that needs servicing. Right now!
In fact, interruptions and the requisite recovery time now consume up to 28 percent of a worker's day, the business research firm Basex estimates. The average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a person can take nearly a half-hour to resume the original task, says Gloria Mark, a leader in the new field of 'interruption science.'
The Downsides of Doing Too Much At Once By trying to jam more and more work into less time, and by flipping from one assignment to another barely pausing for breath in between, we have managed to boost our productivity levels to all-time highs. Is there a day that goes by during week that you don't check off a gazillion tasks on your To Do list?
However there is a darker side to being constantly busy: in particular, the time we allot to methodically, deliberately thinking is disappearing faster than Arctic ice in summer. This is not a positive development. For it is processes such as creativity, deep reflection, and learning from our experiences that get thwarted. Combine this with information (or disinformation) overload, plus physical exhaustion at trying to keep pace, and you have the makings of a whole generation of professionals who are depriving themselves of the kind of pride that artisans used to take in what they produced. You also have a massive number of so-called knowledge workers who are lacking in good old reflective knowledge.
It is not, however, that humans are built without the capacity to deal with interruptions or simultaneous activities. In fact, one of our basic survival mechanisms is to spring into alertness at the signs of change around us. For instance the unexpected snap of a twig nearby. And the ability to run your fastest, throw rocks, intuitively measure the speed of that mastadon just ahead of you, whilst communicating with your fellow tribesmen (and women) in the hunt, once gave you a distinct survival advantage.
But at some point, as more and more survivor progeny also inherited the above physical traits, survival--and progress--depended on being able to develop superior solutions. The first person to figure out that sharpening a rock made the mastadon fall quicker upon impact, well, this lucky troglodyte ended up being better fed than the rest. And what processes did this cave dweller use to arrive at their deduction? Reflective thinking, for one. Experimentation for another. And taking time to learn from experience. All of which required some focused attention, likely in the absence of multi-tasking.
An Attention Renaissance So, when was the last time you gave your full attention to something?
For some people, these days, this would be a form of torture. My 14 year old son's brain would sieze up were he forced to go more than six seconds without switching gears. I blame this, in part (and please don't shoot the messenger here), on today's advertisements. Wrenching your mind every few moments into a new state of arousal. Never letting you rest too long lest you change the channel or lose interest in the ad itself.
Yet some employers are recognizing that quiet and lack of interruption is necessary for true advancement of ideas. In a New York Times article entitled Fighting a War on Distraction, it is pointed out that I.B.M. employees practice 'Think Fridays' worldwide, avoiding or cutting back on e-mail, meetings and interruptions. Other firms are setting aside unwired, quiet rooms. These are the types of practices advocated in the book by Maggie Jackson, 'Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age' (Prometheus).
You yourself can insert a periodic oasis into your day. By scheduling 20 minutes here and there where you turn off your cellphone, let e-mail accumulate if necessary, and allow your voicemail to pick up calls. (See my earlier article on this site, "Unplugging From Work.") If someone other than management pops their head into your cubicle, insist they come back at another time. Better yet, get out of your office if possible. Sit in a nearby Starbucks or Tim's, with only a notepad or laptop on which to process your thoughts. And for goodness sake, sip that $5.00 triple latte mocha espresso slowly--maybe even tasting it fully for the first time.
Give yourself the freedom to pontificate, brainstorm and reflect. In doing so, you may just help to refresh your own batteries and think more clearly. Could be you discover the next killer-app or give rise to a major "aha" moment that leads to your new eureka, thus putting you ahead of all the other constantly multi-tasking mastadon chasers you work with.
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