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Stop Multitasking

We must carve out time to think.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 11:30, my calendar had an unmovable meeting. It lasted only half an hour but my assistant knew that on no account could it be changed or cancelled. And so, three days a week, at 11:30, I’d walk out the door; I’d be back at noon.

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No, it wasn’t face time with the boss. I didn’t visit a therapist and I wasn’t at the gym. I held this all-important appointment for myself. It was my thinking time. I had finally reached the conclusion that, if I didn’t book time to think, I’d never do it. I couldn’t do it at my desk – phones, email, and In trays were too distracting. I couldn’t do it at home – kids, husband, garden, house, and the permanent pile of laundry were too demanding. If I wanted to think then I had to make time for it – and get that time protected.

What I’d discovered was the downside of multitasking. Nowadays, we scan our email while talking on the phone, check the Blackberry in the bathroom, make phone calls from the train. Women, we’re told, are natural multitaskers, confidently cooking dinner while on the phone and supervising homework. Men struggle to emulate us, proudly boasting that they too can attend soccer matches while listening in on conference calls. The competition is not just about how much work we can shift but how many different jobs we can complete simultaneously. Real leaders, we’re told, have a bias for action – so to look like leaders, we become hyperactive, never doing two things when we could be doing four.

What gets lost is thoughtfulness. We’ve gotten so attached to multitasking that we’re in danger of forgetting how to single-task. When did you last have a conversation, a real conversation, with a colleague or a friend – while paying them the compliment of your full, undivided attention? When did you last read a book and give yourself time to think about what it meant and whether or not you agreed with it? When did you last analyze the themes of your career to find out how you could achieve more?

My appointment with myself showed me many things. It always reminded me of something important that had been overlooked in the heat of the day. It often revealed patterns in my work, or the work of my colleagues, that indicated problems or opportunities. Occasionally, it made me see a mistake we could avert, or an opportunity that was staring us in the face. It regularly helped me to recognize patterns – in relationships, problems, products and markets.

Half an hour’s thinking time, three times a week, doesn’t seem like much. But you don’t actually need vast amounts of time to think; you just need that time to be focused and uncluttered. My half hour of walking around a very mundane city block didn’t change my life but it did change my way of working. It made me see the difference between being busy and being productive. I came to learn that having that uninterrupted conversation, for as long as was necessary, turned out to be more effective than the rushed corridor chat or the quick email. I learned that a lot of work, when you ignore it, really does go away – and no one cares. (This felt, and still feels, heretical.) I learned that thoughtfulness beat multitasking most of the time.

One of the places I do my best thinking nowadays is on planes. I used to hate flying and I’m not a big fan now. But I appreciate the fact that the phone won’t ring, no new emails will arrive, and I probably am not going to run into anyone I have to talk to. On a plane, I can think. It’s something I can never do in the office.

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When asked if they wanted to be able to use cell phones on flights, most passengers said no. They didn’t want to overhear other peoples’ conversations, they didn’t want to be contactable. Like me, I think they’ve come to treasure their time alone in the sky. When I speak at conferences and I ask my audience how much time they get to think, mostly what I get is nervous laughter. We all know that we should think – but we also all know that it is impossible to do at work. We have built a knowledge economy that depends, for its very survival, on thinking. But we have built organization and offices which won’t let us think. We have to walk around the block, or fly around the world, in order to do what is the very heart of our work.

That we have built organizations which preclude the one activity they’re designed for is an irony of monstrous proportions, well beyond the scope of a single individual to fix. Solutions aren’t going to emerge quickly or easily. They certainly won’t emerge in the white heat of multitasking. What, as individuals, we need to do is carve out our own thinking time and learn to protect it. We need to do so on the understanding that this is not not working – it is the foundation of work itself. When I see spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations flickering on planes, I feel a twinge of regret. I want to say: Stop it! Your boss isn’t watching. No one will walk in. The phone won’t ring. You have the luxury of uninterrupted time. Seize it. Cherish it. Catch up on the one task that never figures on your Action List. Sit back. Shut your eyes. And think. You won’t regret it.

Next month: How smart people are turned stupid

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