When I begin a session with a coaching client I start by asking the client to “breathe deeply and slowly three times.” One day, I forgot to use the word “slowly”. One, two, three…my client was breathing…and sounded like she was hyperventilating. “Whoa!”, I told, her. “Slow down and try it again.” “Oh, that feels much better!”, she responded. “Now I can focus.”
Given a task, our goal is often to get it done as quickly as possible. While we’re at it, we do two or three other things at the same time. It feels like we’re getting more done when we rush and multitask. We’re not.
The brain can only do one thing at a time. In the book, “Make Your Brain Smarter” by Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD. the author shows us how multi-tasking leads to lower productivity and lower quality decisions.
Let’s look at an example in my career from many years ago. It was the worst period of my career. I was in a job where I was inexperienced for the role and I had no support systems in a new company. There were so many business issues externally and political issues internally that I didn’t know where to start. Every day I left the office exhausted and overwhelmed.
This went on for several months before I had a wake-up call. I was experiencing health issues, relationship issues and, in spite of all my hard work, I was not doing the job well.
If I had followed three simple tips cited by Dr. Chapman my productivity and effectiveness would have greatly improved. She calls them The Power of None, The Power of One and The Power of Two.
The Power of None: Our brains need a break. Pausing to rest allows us to approach a task with a new perspective. When I was in this difficult job, I didn’t stop, even on vacation. From waking up until going to sleep, all I did was work. What I needed was time for my relationships, time for exercise and time for me. It felt like I didn’t have time to take a break, yet my colleagues made time for themselves and their families. It was my perspective, not the job, that was keeping me from taking badly needed breaks. Dr. Chapman’s brain paradox: “Your brain works smarter when you make it slow down.”
The Power of One: According to Dr. Chapman, multi-taskers have difficulty blocking out irrelevant input from their environment. This leads to a less efficient brain. In my example, my “to do” list every day was very long. I was constantly interrupted and my meetings were back to back. People would try to get my attention as I walked down the hall. I never gave adequate attention to the issue at hand but instead jumped from one to another. The result was I missed key details that would have helped in my decision making. Give your full attention to one task at a time.
The Power of Two: Multi-tasking dilutes our strategic attention. In my situation there were so many big issues that I couldn’t tackle them all. But I tried. The consequence: I was unable to clearly discern the top issues that needed my attention. Chapman’s Tip:
Everyday devote the majority of your time to two “elephant” tasks.
Do you know what your elephant tasks are? Take some time to reflect and think about your priorities. Make your personal growth and development one of your priorities. If you need support in prioritization, strategic focus or advancing your career, sign up for a Coaching Discovery Call and we’ll talk about how coaching can support you in your goals.
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