Troubleshooting & Investigations

Distractions, Multi-Tasking and Work Overload

One of the biggest sources of distraction in the workplace today is technology. Phones, tablets, laptops, messages, emails all have the capability to cause even the smallest disruption. More often than not when running meetings and workshops I have to remind people about these distractions.

There are a couple of basic rules that I insist on everyone following during these sessions.

1. No phones or tablets in the room.
2. No laptops open on the desk unless directly required for presentations or note taking.

You’d be surprised at the look of horror on some faces when I present these rules. There are of course exceptions, someone may be on high alert and be required to be available on the phone. Someone may have a personal issue that requires them to be available. These exceptions are acceptable it manageable. i.e. Have someone outside the room keep watch on these specific phones but the phone doesn’t not need to be in the room.

Devices do have the ability to distract people from what is important. There needs to be a conscious effort from each individual to manage these distractions. By accepting a message or an email when you are in the middle of doing something you are in fact reducing your productivity and focus.

I work on the basis that we can only focus on one task at a time. I have some rules that I follow in order to minimise distractions during work time.

1. Don’t check your email first thing each morning unless there is a specific response or update you are waiting on in order to complete a priority task.
2. By checking email first thing you are inviting others to provide a distraction
3. At the start of your day, complete a task first then read emails. That way if you do get distracted by an email, at least you will have accomplished something first.
4. If you do receive an email that you need to respond to in order to contain a panic, try to speak to the person first. If this is not possible, set up a brief meeting. If neither of these are possible in the short term, don’t respond until you have spoken to the person in question.
5. Unless needed for a specific input or advice avoid bringing a wider audience into the issue. Your colleagues will appreciate it.
6. If you absolutely have to respond to an email that is likely to stir up a response that could escalate then be constructive. Before sending, print off a draft, go to a quiet office and read it aloud. How does it sound?

– At the start of your day, complete a task first then read emails. That way if you do get distracted by an email, at least you will have accomplished something first.

Multi tasking is a myth. In a professional situation is not possible for one person to focus on more than task at a time. That’s about as much as we need to understand about multitasking.

Multi tasking is not to be confused with taking on too much work and feeling overwhelmed.

Work Overload
It is easy to take on too much work at any time and find ourselves slightly overwhelmed with the amount of work we need to do. Early in our careers when we are getting used to how we respond to the professional working situation this can be a frequent occurrence. It was for me anyway and regularly I would take on too much work at the same time.

I would say yes to everything thinking that I would impress people with the amount of work I could do. I had to work late on many occasions thinking that I was doing the right thing but over time I learned that I was feeding the problem. I was feeding the problem and I did not know what the problem was. I thought that I was not working efficiently enough and not working quickly enough. I was wrong – the issue was that I was taking on far too much work without thinking about it.
What I have learned over the years is that you should be able to do your job effectively most of the time by working between 38 to 45 hours per week. (There are always exceptions where we have to work late or on the weekend). If you find yourself in a position where this is happening every day and every week, there is one or both of two problems:

1. The workload is too much for one person

2. You do not have the ability to do the job effectively

In reality, it is rarely the second reason unless there has been some major oversight in hiring you for the position, you have taken on a job that you are just not capable of doing or the scope of the role has changed significantly.

If you do find yourself in the scenario where you have committed too much work, step back and look at these tasks, the priority of these tasks and decide which one of these tasks do we absolutely need to do first.

If you are unable to define a clear priority between these tasks seek the advice of your immediate manager or supervisor and get their input into how you should prioritize the tasks that you have taken on.

Next, provide a plan or outline a schedule that you think is reasonable. Discuss this with your manager or your client. Once you explain the plan honestly and rationally to someone, very few people can argue or complain. In my own experience 99% of people agree. If you do get a negative response – don’t over react negatively or take it personally. The best you can do is inform the person that you will make every effort to get the tasks done in a timely fashion but you still believe that the schedule you have proposed is the most effective way forward.

Although this article is a mix of three topics, they are related as they can cause disruption and inefficiencies in any organization. Here’s a summary of advice:

1. Distractions – Don’t tolerate them and do not let them disrupt your working day.

2. Multi-Tasking – Don’t go there, it is a myth. If you are trying to do more than one task at a time, both of them will suffer.

3. Workload – think about the tasks you are doing. Prioritize the tasks. Plan your work, then communicate early and often.

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