CEOs are bombarded with information, ideas, gadgets and new technology, while being under constant pressure to perform and deliver results.

With lots of things vying for an executive’s attention it’s very easy to fall into the trap of multi-tasking.

When a person multi-tasks their attention is fractured, and as they switch from one activity to another they lose concentration and, ultimately, become less productive and effective.

For example, if you are sitting in a meeting and typing an email (or reading this article) you won’t be fully concentrating on what is being said. You may think you are listening, but you won’t hear the entire conversation or fully interpret the information being delivered. This is particularly because so much of what is communicated is transmitted non-verbally.

Additionally, each time a person switches from one task to another their brain is activated, and that uses up precious cognitive resources.

Our brain, in particular the prefrontal cortex, isn’t wired to effectively handle multiple issues simultaneously or to rapidly switch back and forth between tasks. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that handles executive functions such as thinking and decision making.

Multitasking is possible but accuracy and performance will drop

David Rock, in his book Your Brain at Work, uses the metaphor of a stage to describe the prefrontal cortex.

Issues arise when there are too many actors on your stage, each trying to play multiple scenes. He notes: “While it is physically possible sometimes to do several mental tasks at once, accuracy and performance drop off quickly.”

This is backed up by research from Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy, which showed that momentary shifts from one task to another, such as stopping to respond to an SMS, increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%.

Multi-tasking has become prevalent as it is seen as the antidote to the busyness of today’s work environment and the rush to achieve multiple deliverables.

However, when this constant busyness is combined with the ineffective use of multi-tasking, there’s a real danger that this work practice means that less progress is made.

Time-box

The solution is targeted concentration – working in dedicated chunks of time, ruthlessly managing the schedule and time-boxing the day.

In practice this means setting aside the morning, when the brain is at its peak, for highly complex thinking.

As well, plan the upcoming day to work in 60–90-minute time blocks, during which you only focus on one task. This means you turn off all distractions, so that the email is only ‘on’ when working on emails, and the same goes for the phone. Between each block of time, get up and walk away from the desk for a few minutes to give your brain a break.

If you want to check your attention levels, ask yourself:

  • Are you aware of how you’re using your time? Is it purpose driven and focused, or is it reactive and scattered?
  • Will the activities you do today get you one step closer to your core goals?
  • How much time are you wasting on activities that don’t add any value?
  • How could you better prioritise your day so you do what matters the most first?