“and the Rebirth of Unitasking”

October 1, 2009

There has been much ado about the results of this recent Stanford study that exposed folks who claim that they can ‘multitask’ at work not only can’t, but their overall quality goes down when they try. I completely agree.

A new employee emailed me while he was in the conference room doing in-processing paperwork. He asked a completely unrelated question and I responded back with “aren’t you paying attention in there?!” When he responded he could multitask with a :) at the end of his email, I shot back a link describing the study. Cute? Maybe. Multitasking? No. The result? I noticed he forgot to sign in the signature block.

I have a love-hate relationship with managing my tasks and due-outs. I like Franklin Covey’s guidance that there’s urgent things and then there’s important things; anything can be urgent if you let others set your priorities but only a few things are actually important. But ‘highly successful’ people are mum when it comes to emails and phonecalls in a role like mine where you’re the responder as much as you are the originator.

My second “real” boss taught me the concept of triage: if it’s from him, respond right away. If it’s from or CCs his boss, don’t mess anything up. People at all levels ping you for the status as if all you had to do was ‘just add water’ to the CC chain. You can have your information three ways: fast, detailed and accurate but you can only pick two at a time. And giving email updates to updates should be last on anyone’s to-do list if they’re really collaborating.

I propose a social contract of the work environment to salute the rebirth of unitasking: I’ll try to tell you my time frame for a quality response if I can’t get back to you within 48 hours. If you don’t hear back from me that day, assume I’m working on it and have aptly prioritized it to be done asap. I’ll expect the same. If it’s important and urgent, we’ll collaborate immediately.


One comment

  1. Great concept. Tough to stick to, even if you’re the big boss. Urgent and important labels seem to shift and wiggle as the issue goes from person to person. It seems to work more efficiently if each level of worker doesn’t forget to look “up” to determine the best label… And your commitment to always first advise if something can’t be an urgent and get done well, should work in theory. The problem arises when the higher level dude is a jerk, and doesn’t want to collaborate s#!t.

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