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Why you should resist the urge to multitask during Zoom meetings

It’s so tempting, but it can wreak havoc on your productivity. Here’s how to find your focus instead.

Why you should resist the urge to multitask during Zoom meetings
[Photo: HAKINMHAN/iStock]
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We’ve all heard that multitasking is bad and switching between activities makes it harder to complete them. But let’s be honest—many of us multitask during Zoom meetings, especially as we enter the 10th month of working remotely and our Zoom fatigue has worsened. But checking email or making a grocery list can have a negative ripple effect you may not realize, says Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done.

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“Switching between tasks can have four effects,” he says. “Things take longer. You are prone to making more mistakes. It increases stress levels. And you can damage relationships.”

When you don’t pay attention, you miss important information, and when you miss important information, you need to take the time to either ask the presenter to go back or follow up after the call. “Either way, you’re wasting both your time and everyone else’s,” Crenshaw says.

To reduce Zoom multitasking, organizers and attendees need to make some changes:

The Responsibility of the Organizer

Part of the problem is that meetings are scheduled for too much time, Crenshaw says. “Time abhors a vacuum and will fill up the space you give it,” he says. “When a meeting feels too long, you will find a way to fill that time. We are a YouTube generation, and we’ve been conditioned to look at a screen and get an answer in a handful of minutes. Then we schedule a 60-minute Zoom meeting.”

The responsibility is on the organizer to create a clear agenda and determine the shortest amount of time the meeting can take. This step can help prevent attendees from multitasking. Also make sure to include a buffer scheduled on both sides of a meeting. The Google Speedy Meeting setting automatically builds this in, or you can adjust your meeting time to leave a 5- or 10-minute buffer.

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“A small gap can be enough to respond to something urgent or take care of the basic needs of a human being,” Crenshaw says. “If you don’t have that buffer, you may feel anxiety wondering if something has shown up in your email inbox. Plus, it’s possible you’ll be late to the next meeting because you didn’t have enough transition time.”

Another way to reduce the temptation to engage in other tasks during a Zoom call is to make sure everyone attending feels that they have a clear reason to be there. “It’s easy to copy and paste an email invitation, but a thoughtful leader will take a moment and customize an email to every attendee,” Crenshaw says. “Add a note that says, ‘I want you to be here to discuss XYZ.’ People will be more interested when they feel they matter. They’re more likely to multitask when they feel there is no point to being there.”

The Responsibility of the Attendee

If you’re an attendee, you may not have control over the time or purpose, but it’s still important to pay attention. The first step is to reduce external distractions by closing nonessential windows, which can feel like a constant reminder of your to-do list.

“Only have the Zoom meeting window open,” Crenshaw says. “And only pull up other windows if they become necessary to the meeting. This is just like in-person meetings where you turn your phone off or set it to silent and put it out of view.”

If you’re easily distracted, Crenshaw says it’s completely fine to have a fidget toy that’s quiet and out of view. “This doesn’t require attention and can be soothing if you feel like the meeting is drawing long, which most of us feel at some point,” he says. “It’s a way to help you get through without the temptation of email or other programs that get in the way of your focus.”

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Crenshaw suggests making subtle adjustments to your workspace, which can make it easier to maintain focus. For example, use only one note-taking app or tool to keep things simple and streamlined. Come prepared by having a bullet-point list of questions. It can also help to set expectations with your family and roommates of when you won’t be available, so you’re not interrupted. (Or interrupted less, anyway.)

If you’re the organizer and you see that attendees are bored and distracted, it can feel like you’re unimportant. And if you’re the attendee, ask yourself if that’s the message you really want to send.

“When you focus on the human being, you can build the relationship,” Crenshaw says. “Paying attention communicates to them that they’re more important than anything else you could be doing. In a world where we’re separated from each other, telling people they’re important through your attention can make a big difference.”