The truth of the matter is that multitasking just isn’t possible if you want to deliver at the highest levels. The human mind may be truly amazing, but it does have limitations in dealing with many things at any one moment in time. Let’s look at a hypothetical example. You have multiple client proposals to write, a business case on a new initiative is coming due to your boss, you have numerous client meetings to schedule, your inbox is flooded with emails and you literally feel that you don’t have time to think. All of these items on your to-do list have a high priority and you are having trouble focusing on one without thinking of the others. The more your mind drifts off topic, thinking about other projects, the more productive time you are losing that you will never get back.
The best way to maximize productivity is through compartmentalization. Here’s my suggestion: Imagine you have a shelf on your wall and on that shelf are numerous boxes. Each of those boxes represent one of your projects or initiatives. The secret is to open only one box at a time and while that box is open, that particular project receives 100 percent of your undivided attention. It is absolutely incredible how much more productive you will be when you stay focused on one priority at a time. Try to schedule your day so that every hour is assigned to a particular priority. Another box is not opened until the prior box has been closed. Keep in mind many of the boxes could represent high priority items. However, it’s just not possible to do justice to any one priority while your mind is drifting to the others.
I find email to be a distraction that eats up a great deal of time out of the day. My suggestion is to block specific times for your email and focus on cleaning out your inbox. This is much better than working on mails throughout the day and continually distracting yourself from focusing on your other priorities. Maybe you already know where I am going. Emails should be in a totally separate box on your imaginary shelf. Carve out specific times to work on emails when all other boxes are closed. When you are working on other boxes, your email box should be closed and sitting back on that imaginary shelf.
What happens when more and more projects are falling on your plate, thus creating more boxes on your shelf. Ask yourself if it is possible to begin delegating some responsibilities. Many people hesitate to delegate because they have the feeling that others will not do the job as well as they will and that may in fact be true. However, the only way our employees will grow is to empower them with responsibilities and give them every opportunity to succeed. People on your team want to grow just like you, so give them the opportunity to take on a challenging project and serve as a mentor to them. Once you start to delegate, you will be able to reduce the number of boxes on your imaginary shelf. You will also find that your team will be more productive, a must in this fast-paced business environment. The goal here is to carefully select and pass some boxes to members of your team.
If you have a family at home, this is your most important box. Many people (including me) find there just aren’t enough hours in a work day to accomplish everything and our work time spills over to our personal time. This is where we lose work-life balance, but most importantly, when we negatively impact members of our family. Time with our spouses, partners, children and parents are important and we don’t want to take them for granted. If working at home after work hours becomes a must at times, choose times that are least likely to interfere with family time. For me, that’s very early in the morning when my family’s day has not yet begun. The key is not to short-change your family, as they represent the most important box on your shelf.
I urge you to adopt this strategy of compartmentalization. To this day, I use the visual of the boxes and the shelf, as it really helps me manage my time. My hope is that you will find yourself to be much more productive and less stressed after embracing this strategy.
Gary A. Cohen is associate dean of the Office of Executive Programs at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is a certified executive coach and prior to joining the faculty at Smith, he had a successful 30-year corporate career, with the last 15 as a senior executive. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @gary_a_cohen, and on LinkedIn.