How to “Multi-task”.

April 1, 2013 - 6 minutes read

Run a gel, genotype the patient samples, finish up the final edits on that manuscript, and Skype with a colleague, all at the same time. We try to do it all the time. We tell ourselves we can multitask. We think that we’re being extremely productive when we multitask. In actually its not productive at all. Its called “task switching” and current studies show that this is extremely taxing on the memory and cognition skills of our brain.  (Ariely,D.) We have a genuine need to “feel” productive. The problem is that this has a greater negative effect on our productivity.  When we task switch, the reduction of our productivity is twice that of smoking marijuana or sleep deprivation. (Bregman,P.) This is a false belief that we are more productive when we multitask.  We multitask because we want results now. Our current culture caters to instant gratification which potentially enhances our sensitivity to environmental stimuli via our hunter-gather cognition. (Hartmann,T).

Unfortunately we live in a world where there are so many distractions with technology, news, friends and colleagues.  We always feel as though they all need our attention and all at the same time.  Unfortunately we end up giving only a fraction of our time and the work suffers because we focus more on the time of completion rather than the quality of the product.

So how does one get things done without multitasking? First, you stop multitasking.  If you’re used to multitasking, this can be a little more difficult to do.  Especially when you’re in a lab environment with so many potential distractions.  It’s like living in an ADHD world. I’m sure many lab managers feel this way.  After you stop multitasking you then need to control your environment.  You can help to accomplish this by doing 3 primary things:

  1. Schedule appointments.
    1. When it comes to people, we always think that we have to answer questions right there and then. People expect it because most likely you do answer them right there and then. Kindly ask them if they could send you a message via email or schedule a time later in the day.  If you have open hours, schedule that too. Don’t allow people to interrupt your time with out a schedule. Be firm and consistent.
    2. When in comes to inanimate forces, like meetings, services, and experiments, they can always be un-expected. Schedule those as well.  If they’re meetings, then abide by the schedule or ask someone to attend in your place and to take notes. If an equipment is down, schedule services later in the day or at another time (if there is no immediate personal danger, of course). If there’s an experimental problem, then solve it when time permits.  You should be allotting extra time for trouble shooting into your protocol and experimental designs, anyways.
  2. Develop routines
    1. Develop a system or set of routines that you do everyday or regularly; ie. weekly meetings, daily email times, weekly one on ones, arrival and departure times, etc.
    2. Ensure that your people are aware of them as well. This will help them to plan around YOUR schedule which will ultimately limit their need to interrupt.
  3. Sacrifice tasks
    1. Say ‘no’. Sometimes you have to say “no” to others. We all hate hearing it, but sometimes it necessary. First, tell them “no” respectfully, then state a reason, and lastly a possible solution. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I don’t have the time, but maybe you could consult with Joe.”  They will either respect your boundaries or they will grumble, but either way remember, your time is yours, not theirs.
    2. Sacrifice the least impactful task. I’ve covered this one of my blog posts on “choices”, and sometimes somethings will just never get done.  You have to admit to yourself and let it fall. Analyze which ones have the least impact if they fail. And remember, the quality of the successful tasks will out weigh the sacrificed ones.

This can be a small guide to help you avoid multitasking and ultimately help you ACTUALLY be more productive. There’s too much to do and multitasking isn’t the answer. One task a time is the answer and the more you practice focusing, the better you’ll become.  I always tell my people, “Pebble by pebble. Thats how mountains are moved.” So start moving those pebbles.


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