Multi-Tasking: Slow Down to Speed Up

By Dr. Ron Knaus

Today’s employees are under more stress than ever before. A recent Harris Interactive poll found that one-third of workers ages 25 to 39 feel burned out by their jobs. Additionally, doctors’ offices are seeing more stress-related illnesses than ever before, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, adult ADHD, backache, and migraines. In fact, primary care physicians report that between 70% and 90% of their patients are seen because of underlying emotional stress.

So what is causing all of this turmoil? Over the past 10 years businesses have become lean, mean machines by reducing personnel and increasing the workload on those “lucky” enough to remain on the job. An increased workload forces the worker into multi-tasking. While multi-tasking may be effective for a short period of time, over the long term, multi-tasking causes excessive stress.

In the business world, multi-tasking is a must-have skill for any employee, yet results are showing that most workers feel they are being asked to do too many tasks. Why the disconnect between the workday realities and the workers’ perception? Because people have never learned exactly how to multi-task. That’s right, multi-tasking is a learned skill. By learning how to multi-task efficiently, you can dramatically reduce your workday stress, increase your productivity, and enjoy your work once again.

The Keys to Multi-Tasking Success: Contrary to popular belief, multi-tasking is not about “piling on the work” to the point of exhaustion. It’s about training the brain to channel energy in an efficient and effective manner so you can accomplish more in less time. And believe it or not, one of the hallmarks of learning to multi-task is to actually slow down to accomplish more.

Following are some techniques that will help you mentally slow down so you can finally learn how to multi-task and master this essential business skill.

Practice how to multi-task: Whether you’re learning how to play the piano, use a computer program, or multi-task, practice is essential to mastering the skill. Why? Because practice makes something seem routine, and when something is routine, it’s no longer stressful. Look at all the things you do in a day. Pick a few routine tasks to start with. As you master doing multiple routine things, then move on to slightly more difficult tasks. Gradually work up to the number of tasks you normally do.

During this process, remember that learning takes time. Very often people jump into a new role or responsibility without gradually gearing up their workload. Then they wonder why they feel stressed and can’t multi-task effectively. So if you want to do all the things you do each day in a more efficient manner with less stress, take a step back and teach your body and mind how to work up to the production level you desire. Such a gradual process will make multi-tasking easier than ever before.

Know when a task requires undivided attention: Switching brain channels (focus) repeatedly actually reduces your memory recall. Think of your brain like a computer. If you are working within multiple programs and have numerous windows open on your screen so you can quickly jump from program to program, you may find that your computer has a higher tendency of locking up. That is, when you have fifteen windows open at once on your computer, and you attempt to pull up your word processing document, it’s not uncommon for your computer to run slow or to totally freeze up, often causing you to lose all the data since your last “save.”

The same thing happens in your brain. When you’re performing multiple tasks that require your undivided attention, your brain gets overloaded, as it can only process information from one channel at a time. Therefore, do not multi-task if the assignment requires your full attention. Once that urgent or detailed task is complete, then you can go back to doing the other tasks you normally do. This step will save you lots of rework, as you’re more prone to make mistakes when your brain is overloaded.

Use a tool to help you multi-task: To refrain from taxing your brain, write down items you can refer to quickly. For example, if you have a list of items you need to refer to often (such as pricing or shipping information or keyboard shortcuts) put the list next to your phone or computer for quick recall. Not only will others think you are brilliant because of your amazing ability to rattle off information, but you won’t have to waste brain energy on such mundane information. You can then use your brainpower for true multi-tasking purposes.

Allow your mind to re-boot: Shift multi-tasking to single tasking throughout the day to allow your mind to re-boot. The human brain uses more energy than any other part of the body. As such, it needs constant replenishment. Rest is one of the key components to increasing personal energy and productivity. So every two to three hours, stop multi-tasking and allow yourself to do just one thing for fifteen to twenty minutes. At the end of this rest period, you’ll feel refreshed, alert, and ready to tackle more tasks—and you’ll do so with fewer mistakes than if you plowed through your tasks without this re-boot period.

Take a brain break: Most employers offer their full-time staff a lunch break and two fifteen minute breaks throughout the day. Do you take yours? Most people do not, and as such, they’re not giving their mind a true break from the stresses of the day. Use this break time to walk around the building, sit outside, or just close your eyes and meditate. Do whatever you like during these fifteen minutes to clear your head and give your brain a rest. If you really can’t afford a fifteen-minute break in your day, then turn off your mind as you walk to the water cooler or restroom. Give your mind some kind of total break from the workday tasks. To function at peak levels on a consistent basis, regular breaks are essential.

Do More with Less Stress: Multi-tasking is a part of our business world. If you truly want to succeed, then you need to learn how to multi-task so it doesn’t overwhelm you and cause unnecessary stress. By simply slowing down and working up to the performance level you desire, you can multi-task effectively and increase productivity. Simply put, learning how to maintain your highest level of mental functioning is your key to multi-tasking success.

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