Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Do one thing at a time

Only yesterday I was reading tips about how to make better use of standing in line at the supermarket by texting or phoning business contacts. As I read the article I felt rather ordinary. When I stand in line at the supermarket I don’t do anything much, I just queue. Yet another part of me wondered what sort of experience these business contacts might be getting from these calls or texts. I concluded it couldn’t be that good to have to share time with grocery shopping.

It seems as though doing one thing at a time is out of fashion. Harvard’s Management Tip for Today is to Prioritize Value over Volume. Research shows that multitasking produces mediocre results, however single-tasking is not recommended either. It’s too slow, argues the author, for today’s world.

I say bunkum to that, and here’s why.

  1. Thinking time is valuable. The times when we appear to be “doing nothing” like queuing in the supermarket or taking a shower are often the times when our brains come up with the best ideas. Valuing downtime, rather than trying to cram it full of more “doing” things is ultimately more successful. Allow the brain to worth through problems and find good solutions in a relaxed way.

  2. Most things have scope for error. Writing proposals, answering emails, figuring out systems, paying for groceries all can go wrong in small or large ways. Concentrating on the task in hand reduces the possibility of error. Doing things without error means you only do them once, which is a great deal faster than doing them twice.

  3. Many things are difficult. Finding the right words to convince someone of your point of view, ensuring your communications are not misinterpreted, or ensuring the numbers add up all require focus and double-checking.

My two favourite Swiss artists, Fischli and Weiss, produced a simple list entitled “How to Work Better.” It hangs on my wall close enough to my desk so I can glance up from time to time to read it. And I do. I often glance up and I do read it. The first item on the list is “Do one thing at a time”. More often than not I don’t get past that first item because it reminds me to focus and go back to the task in hand.

Single-tasking is surely the fastest way to accomplish anything, despite what management gurus would have us believe.

Email me if you would like a copy of Fischli and Weiss’s list, then you too can have one for your office wall.

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