Driven to Distraction: To Multitask or Not?

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Take a look around, and you’ll see multitasking has become a way of life: The guy sitting next to you at the movie theater is sending an e-mail from his BlackBerry, and the woman driving to your left is juggling her cell phone, mascara and — you hope — the steering wheel. One of these individuals might even be you.

IT professionals, more than most, are likely to embrace multitasking because of their familiarity with the technological tools that facilitate it. After all, there are probably times when your landline, cell phone, pager and e-mail all demand your attention at once.

But while it’s clear multitasking has become normal on the job, it’s not always clear that performing more than one task simultaneously is advantageous. Indeed, a recent Time magazine article noted that handling too many duties at once causes performance to suffer and stress to rise. With that in mind, here are some strategies to more effectively manage the projects and requests coming your way.

Do One Thing at a Time
There’s something compulsive about wanting to check e-mails and voicemails as soon as they arrive, but when you are beginning a major project or a difficult task, consider turning off all your devices. While you might not be able to ignore incoming messages for long, you might be able to set aside a few hours each day for careful concentration.

“Prioritize” Your Multitasking
As strange as it sounds, you have to manage not only your time but also the multitasking you do during that time. For example, many people check e-mail while on conference calls. The merits — not to mention the manners — of this sort of “time management” strategy are debatable. What happens when the CIO asks you a question about the supply chain that you can’t answer because you were busy sending a quick note to a co-worker about another project?

Assess the benefits of multitasking instead of doing it by rote. In the example above, it’s probably best to focus solely on the conference call because the CIO is present. But if you are asked to listen in on a two-hour meeting between department heads simply so you are “in the loop,” taking the time to answer a few e-mails during the discussion might be acceptable.

Avoid the “It Will Only Take a Second” Mentality
There is only so much you can effectively juggle at once. Imagine you are installing software upgrades in your department, a high-priority project. While it’s tempting to talk to a co-worker who stops by, consider the benefits of postponing the impromptu discussion — constantly stopping and starting activities often ends up taking more time because you have to ramp up again after each interruption. By giving your full attention to the task before you, you’ll likely produce better work and be able to check it off your list more quickly.

Tell Others You Aren’t Available
Consider posting a polite note on your office or cubicle entrance to let co-workers know you are busy and when you will be available for meetings or to answer questions. You also can use the “out of office” function on your e-mail application, not to tell people that you’re away but to let them know when they can expect a response from you. Many offices use an online calendar to track meetings or vacations — if your department has one, use it to block time when you want to focus on a particular project for a few hours.

Take a Technology Break
In today’s age of around-the-clock availability, even “free” time is interspersed with e-mail and cell phone interruptions. You need to recharge, however, just like the technical devices you use. As long as you are not on call, consider turning off your cell phone while at home or refraining from checking e-mail on the weekend. A true mental break such as these will help you return to the office refreshed, making you more productive.

There are times when multitasking does, of course, help you achieve more: returning phone calls as a large software package loads, for example. The key is to think before automatically assuming you’ll be more productive by doing everything at once. Some projects require all your attention, and figuring out which ones do will save you time and might even help you get more done.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. She can be reached at klee@certmag.com.

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