Confessions of a multi-tasking loser

In this fast-paced multi-tasking world, I have a very unpopular style: I do one thing at a time.

I’ve tried to multi-task but end up either having to scrap and redo the work or risk missing an important comment in a call and look like I’m not paying attention (which I’m not.)

I remember clearly the day I hit the brick wall. I was trying to juggle a number of different things spanning multiple projects:

• Research for a guest article on virtual working.
• Research for a leadership skills workshop coming up in a week.
• Apply a critical update to my websites.
• Participate as one of three guest speaker on a live webinar.
• Reschedule several client meetings.
• Review feedback and create a report for a client.
• Provide input on a business proposal.
• Conducted two coaching sessions.

I was trying to cram twelve hours worth of work into eight which meant I was doing more than one thing at a time. Why not? Everyone else was doing it. Why not read emails and try to reschedule appointments while on the webinar. Why not flip back and forth between updating the websites and making notes on the business proposal. By the end of the day I was not only exhausted, but I’m not so sure I was fully present in any one of those important activities (except for the coaching sessions.)

When a colleague started to question my commitment and ability to do the work, I knew it was time to change. She had noticed I wasn’t fully participating on the webinar. She noticed my comments on the proposal were sometimes out of context. Lucky for me she is also a coach and helped me to recognize the problem and take action.

Through observation, exploration, and experimentation, we were able to identify that the coaching sessions were the only work that day that resulted in my best work. We dug deeper into my work style and after much experimentation I realized it was because of my focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others. But that wasn’t all I discovered.

I recognized that I need different focus for different types of work. Three types of work, to be exact. First is the small tasks. I can multi-task with small things like recording my expenses and answering emails or making backups and sending appointment requests. But those are a small part of my work and even during those times, I am easily distracted so I try not to multi-task unless necessary.

The second type of work are the conversations and they require staying fully focused – one thing at a time. Whether in a webinar, on a coaching call, or at a live meeting – all of these require my full attention. But that wasn’t a surprise. I do that with my coaching sessions. What was a surprise was the third type of work.

The third type of work are my larger creative projects. When I have an important project – it consumes me. I create blocks of time to devote to the process. I think about it in the shower, while driving, while walking the dog, while doing laundry, while reading emails, even in those lucid moments just before falling asleep or waking up.

I’m searching for ideas, solutions, innovation, patterns, even connections between my project and the rest of existence. I need to put aside other projects temporarily. Although I know they are there and sometimes I discover something while focusing on project A that will help project B, but I can not be distracted. I jot down the ‘something’ in the project B file and let it go.

Though this can be frustrating to some people, I’ve learned to explain my approach to my collaborators so that their expectations are managed.

When I tell others I don’t multi-task they begin to brag about how much they do multi-task as if it were a badge of honor. What I wonder is – are they really doing their best work? When in conversations with them, do I feel heard and understood or do I feel they are distracted by their devices?

I’m comfortable with my style and embrace focusing on one thing at a time. It’s how I deliver my best work.

Why am I sharing this with you? As a reminder that we are all individuals and it’s important to honor your own work style and that of others. Find what works for you so you can deliver both quality and quantity, so you can deliver your best work.