Scrap the Juggling Act

Feel Like you're Juggling too Many Balls and it is Just a Matter of Time Until you Drop that one Ball that could Trash your Career? And then your boss

Feel Like you're Juggling too Many Balls and it is Just a Matter of Time Until you Drop that one Ball that could Trash your Career? And then your boss shows up with yet another ball. So, what do you do? Instead of taking a stand by trading out an existing ball for this new one, you resign yourself to juggling faster.

I'm a card-carrying member of AARP — mostly to get the discount on hotel stays. But, I also get their magazine, American Way, where I occasionally run into an article that scratches an itch. The November 2007 issue has just such an article that recommends addressing our hectic, frenetic lifestyles by going into “multi-multitasking rehab.”

In the article, Dr. Russell Poldrack, an associate professor of psychology with the University of California, Los Angeles, addresses the dangers in multitasking. States Poldrack, “If you switch tasks, your brain has to close out that task and boot up another. The reason that multitasking is bad cognitively is that you basically waste time doing that switching.”

So, how much time do we waste? Concerning multitasking, Chief Analyst Jonathan Spira of research firm Basex says, “You only think you're more productive.” According to a Basex survey of 1000 workers, two hours are lost in an average day tending to unimportant interruptions such as instant messaging and vibrating pagers. This corresponds to a projected annual cost to U.S. businesses of $588 billion.

So, what are you going to do with this newfound knowledge? Why not see if you can free up time to spend on your real job, so you can leave on time and get home earlier? After all, Spira has provided us with the statistics to show our management that all this juggling results in us being less efficient, not more.

Do our bosses really want us to be more efficient? This is a hypothetical question because we all know that most bosses are only marginally interested in our efficiency. After all, we have nights and weekends to make up for interruptions. Instead, our bosses (oops, I mean life coaches and mentors) are usually focusing on reducing their own workload by shifting work downstream, thus providing us with another “opportunity” to pick up another ball. Of course, bosses can't actually acknowledge they are not interested in your productivity, so you still have a little leverage.

Back when I was an associate engineer, my boss, Mack Martin, came in and said, “Rick, you are not managing your time well.” I was smart enough not to argue. For one thing, he was probably right. Instead, I came up with a quite-detailed schedule. I wasn't really worried about being held accountable to this schedule, as you'll soon see.

Not two days later, Mack popped into the soil lab saying, “Rick, I need you to run a quick test for me.” My response: “No can do. It's not on my schedule.” He looked slightly perturbed before trudging back to his office.

A day later, he came back with another assignment. “Sorry, Mack, I'm afraid I won't be able to fit this in, but, I want you to know this schedule idea is working and really helping me stay on task.”

As I recall, Mack let loose an expletive or two. But his next comment was music to my ears, “Forget the schedule and run this test. I need the results today.”

Oh sweet victory! I managed to get rid of all my old balls and pick up only one new ball. True, I didn't get to select the ball, but that was a small price to pay.

I find that my personal productivity and enthusiasm peak (hey, I wonder if they are related?) when I focus on three or four tasks and work on them hard. During the day, if I get bored with one ball, I set it aside and pick up another.

Only when an assignment has been completed do I pick up the next ball. I am tempted sometimes to pick up that next ball early, but I resist the temptation by reminding myself that, in the long run, I'll end up getting less done, not more.

Engineers at major utilities are pushed to the limit. At the same time, utilities require that seemingly inconsequential tasks be performed to meet corporate directives. As these tasks proliferate, the more important but less urgent balls are dropping. The result? Those little balls you dropped are looking more like medicine balls, becoming so heavy you can barely lift them, while the efforts you spent meeting corporate directives are for naught as the company changes its strategic focus for the fifth time in 10 years.

What if we decided not to rush? What if instead we decided to focus on the real issues the company faces? Maybe even climbing into the trenches where real work is being done. What if we even lowered ourselves into the trenches to pick up a shovel? Might the quality of our decisions improve? And what if we went that step further and left the workers in the trenches instead of dragging them out for the next series of sensitivity training sessions?

Hasty decisions, stacked one on top of another, tend to take us into unhealthy territory where we yell louder, run faster, think leaner, act tougher and get less done. Instead, let's slow the pace. Let's juggle fewer balls. Let's move deliberately. Let's work smart. And while we're at it, let's have a little fun while we're making a bigger difference.

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