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In the CEO's head: Multitasking on a higher level

Switching between tasks   Learn from the best CEOs around

Multitasking is a thing that everybody hates at work, yet no working day is without some. While it may bring some people to the edge of a nervous breakdown, some cope with multitasking extremely well. And they are successful leaders.

But, let first make one thing clear: what you call multitasking is in fact task-switching. The one and only truly multitasking is your own life support: breathing, walking, thinking, and all body functions that keep you alive and well.

On the other hand, in the office, we just switch out attention from task to task, and rarely multitask in the strict sense of the world.

The problem with multitasking is that we need some time to switch between projects and we are spending valuable time on that. Another problem is that even the simplest tasks - "Just check the mail!" - are distracting and increase time we need to finish our original task significantly. Studies confirm that: switching between tasks can cause a 40% loss in productivity.

The list of problems goes on. When you switch to a new task, your brain needs some time to adapt. In other words, it has to "forget" what you were doing; recall all necessary experience, skills and knowledge for a new task; and then it is ready to work. The problem: if you switch fast enough - and this is often the case in the office - you are never "in," you are never totally focused on the job at hand.

Multitasking is hard because our brain is made to handle two simultaneous tasks at once. When the third demand appears, we have a problem. This is because our short term memory is being disrupted and that's what we need the most when dealing with multiple tasks.

So, what we can do? We can learn from the best CEOs around. They are without any doubt the masters of task switching, but they are doing it in a slightly different way.

First, they are trying to avoid task switching to the best of their ability. When they are doing one job - for example discussing accounting - they are fully "in" and are in until they finish that. Their barrier to the outside world - their secretary - won't allow you to interrupt them even if the Dow Jones just reached zero.

Then, if you look at them closely, they will take some time before they start to work on a new task. It may be a pause just a few seconds long, simple "OK, what do you have?" or just a short stretching in their executive chair - they are allowing their brain to slow down, forget the previous job and prepare for the next.

And third, they are experienced in many fields: from accounting to production to marketing. You may recall that all business schools cover all those - and many more - fields because CEOs need all that knowledge.

We may say this differently: they are not wasting their time learning on the spot. If you come with a crazy idea and can't explain it in plain English and relatively fast, you'll be going back to your workplace fast. Don't expect them to try learn what it is all about right away, that's just unnecessary burden for the brain.

Experienced CEOs are also setting time for their daily tasks. Every one of them will tell you "First I'm checking my mails, then go through newspapers, and then make a plan for today." In other words, by planning in advance, they are not allowing tasks to overlap.

By combining those simple steps, experienced CEOs are in a way going around multitasking, avoiding it, and the end result is: more job done, less errors, less strain on the brain, and happier person.

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