Virtual Leadership and Multi-Tasking

By Guest Blogger, Megan McSwain

So it turns out, there is no such thing as multitasking… which is particularly embarrassing for me, since I once boasted to a boyfriend that I could out multitask him 4-to-1. Still, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), National Public Radio (NPR) and Cornell University (among others), what we call multitasking is actually sequential focus switching.  In other words, your brain is not doing two things at once, it is doing two things in quick succession. 

With COVID-19 implications for working from home and/or working in an increasingly virtual environment, your brain is probably doing exponentially more than two things in rapid and repeated succession.

Semantics? Kind of, but not really, and here’s why: No doubt you have heard that studies show switching (aka multitasking) actually decreases productivity; But we ignore those studies because 1) our anecdotal experience feels different and 2) it’s simply not possible to bound our environment for single tasking – whatever that is. Having worked a Combat Tactical Operations Center, I understand the need, appeal and (qualified) functionality of switching.  But here’s where we go from semantic to practical.  If we change the frame from multitasking/ simultaneous to switching/ sequential, we can connect with the logic that the switch causes drag on productivity.  Then, by being mindful of the switching process, we can be sensible about how we manage focus.  We may not be able to single task, but we can probably switch more productively.

Furthermore, as leaders, we can harness even greater benefit for our organizations and families.  If a modest increase in focus areas leads to a substantial increase in switching at the individual level, then the impact for groups and teams is exponential.  Fortunately, the inverse is also true – a modest decrease in focus areas can lead to a significant decrease in drag on organizational productivity.  But how can we gently repurpose the pride of out multitasking our competition for the long game?

As a sneak peek, scientists and behavioral pundits offer a number of techniques to limit and optimize switching behaviors including batching, breaks, and interruption management.  Over the next few weeks, and hopefully with your input, this blog will explore a some of these practices in more detail.  For this week though, I invite you to just be mindful of when and how you switch: what feels like it works?  How does it impact your energy level?  The quality and accuracy of your work?  Are there tasks or times when switching works better?

Please welcome, Megan McSwain, as a guest blogger on Gold Dog Consulting.

Hi, my name is Meg and I am retiring after 20 great years in the Army.  I have served as an Intelligence Analyst, Company Commander in Afghanistan, West Point History Instructor, Operations Officer, Planner, and Project Manager focusing on everything from Chinese Regime Diplomacy, to Girls’ Schools in Western Afghanistan.  Cindy/Gold Dog Consulting is helping me to  explore career options in Coaching, Leadership and Entrepreneurship.  My Goal is show people how to recognize and take advantage of opportunities.

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