I distinctly recall the first time I heard the word multitasking. It was in the late 1990s and I was in a colleague’s office for a meeting. She was sitting behind her desk and I was in a chair facing her. As we talked, she began to straighten up, ­picking up papers and glancing at them before ­assembling them in neat stacks. I asked if she would prefer I come back to which she replied, “No, no, I’m just multitasking.” Given the context, I was able to deduce the essence of the word, if not the precise definition. Setting aside the feeling of being a task she was handling, it was apparent that her full attention was not focused on our discussion. She wasn’t facing me as her eyes were directed to the documents she was organizing. And I could tell that the quality of the conversation was diminished by the intermittent attention it received.

Since then, multitasking became a buzz word believed by many to imply maximum productivity. Job postings include language like “must be able to multitask,” and I saw an employment application that asked “do you prefer to multitask or to work on one thing at a time?” I would bet the correct answer was not “I prefer to work on one thing at a time.”

According to Wikipedia, “The first ­published use of the word multitask ­appeared in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of the IBM System/360 in 1965. In this context, multitasking refers to the ability of a computer to process several jobs concurrently. The term has since been applied to human tasks.” That happened in 1998, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com).

Since then, car phones, then cellphones, then smartphones and tablets catapulted into prominence, making it possible to be plugged in all the time, with a multitude of applications vying to help in every area of life. The problem is, that although ­technology is designed to improve productivity and effectiveness, it has had the opposite affect because of the way devices distract and interrupt every facet of what we do. There have always been interruptions and distractions, but they are finding new cracks and ­crevices to fill and rob us of our most valuable commodity—time.

In “The Myth of Multitasking,” Dave Crenshaw exposes the lie that stands behind the word—that a person can do more than one thing at a time. Here is a frequent example: you are ­working on an email at your computer and someone walks into your office to ask a question. You keep working, allow the question to be asked and provide a response and then go back to your work. Maybe you thought you were doing both things at once, but Crenshaw points out that in a scenario like this, people switch-task, going back and forth between two tasks and jumping mental tracks so rapidly that it escapes notice. The first switch happens when the person walks in and interrupts your work flow. As you try to keep working and listen at the same time, another switch occurs. When you finally give up and listen to the question, a third switch happens and when the question has to be repeated because you weren’t really listening the first time, another switch. When you answer and return to your work, the final switch in this scenario is triggered. As Crenshaw writes: “Because of the break in concentration, you had to find where you were in typing the email. You tried to pick up the train of thought you had before. It took a moment to figure out, but finally you got back to work … switch-tasking is very costly. It is a less effective and less efficient way to get things done.” Interruptions are considered passive switches.

“Active switches” are self-inflicted. This occurs when you decide to interrupt ­yourself and make a call, get up from your desk, or check email on your own. Anytime you are the one making the switch, it is an active switch.

“Background tasking” is a term that describes doing multiple things productively, such as running while listening to music. When used properly it “has the potential to be efficient and effective” unlike multitasking because no matter how rapidly the switch is made between two things, it is always efficient to finish one before moving on to the next. Crenshaw drives the point home: “Saying you are a good multitasker is the same as saying that you’re good at using a less effective way to get things done.”

Crenshaw argues that because of the switching cost of each interruption we lose 28 percent of our workday to passive and active interruptions. Think of the weekly, monthly and yearly implications and multiply it by the number of employees you have. It’s a staggering figure. I have seen clients recover large pockets of time by being more attentive and proactive about managing interruptions.

The key, writes Crenshaw, is to use your calendar to determine in advance when you will deal with interruptions in your day. We think that technology makes us more productive, but only if we learn to take control of it, rather than letting it control us. “We are the masters. If you and I don’t set up a schedule and protect our time, we allow ourselves to be run over by the traffic of information.”
Crenshaw provides strategies to recapture your time:

  • Resist the impulse to make active switches. For example, when I sat down to write this article, I was tempted to jump up and grab some business cards from a networking event I attended earlier in the day. The truth is we welcome distraction because doing our work is hard;
  • Focus your full attention on people and practice active listening;
  • Allow ample time for travel between appointments;
  • If there is someone you frequently need to have discussions with, set up recurring meetings. Interruptions often occur because people have no reliable way of getting time with you and this removes the uncertainty and fear of not being able to get issues ­addressed and a regular time to meet.

Minimize passive switches:

  • Close the door to your office and hang a sign indicating when you will be ­available. Again, this eliminates anxiety caused by uncertainty of when people will have a chance to speak with you;
  • Create voicemail messages stating that you are unable to take the call, but check messages frequently and provide a time frame for when it usually happens or will happen that day. Always say you will be sure to return the call before close of business;
  • Set up your email to respond ­automatically during times when you are working on a project and turn off audible email alerts.

I thought this article was finished when the following scenario occurred. I was in a yoga class and a phone belonging to the person on the mat next to me began to ring. He grabbed the phone and breathlessly told the caller: “I can’t talk now.” It took a minute for the person on the other end to get the message and the teacher asked him to take it outside, but he finished the call and got back to yoga. For one hour on a Saturday morning, he could have turned the phone off and allowed the outgoing message to convey that he was unavailable without disrupting his practice and the class. I lost some ground because of the distraction and am certain the same was true for him.
Time management is really self-management. By taking control of your calendar, you can accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

Reprinted with permission from the August 24, 2016 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com.