How to Manage Multiple Tasks Effectively - Business Multitasking 101
The modern workplace is saturated with tasks and information.
Never before in history have employees been required to get so many tasks done, communicated to them over such a wide variety of channels.
While you’re busy working on one urgent task, your phone will light up with an important notification, and while you’re reading that your manager will hit you up with another task that needs to get done – now.
And chances are you already have a big stack of tasks to get done, on a variety of different projects.
This means you’re faced with a bunch of pretty serious cognitive challenges, including:
- Dealing with distractions from tasks you’re busy on.
- Having to switch between tasks, which can include switching between skillsets and getting into the right headspace to perform that task to the best of your ability.
- Coping with the knowledge that there’s a pile of work you need to get done by specific deadlines, which creates pressure and stress.
- Having to communicate effectively with co-workers and/or clients while under stress, answering questions or offering explanations in ways that do not risk alienating them or setting your projects back.
Chances are you’ve already developed methods to cope with these challenges. And that you’re reading this because you can sense that your coping methods are not working effectively. You’re getting more stressed out by the day. And although you’re busy, you’re not productive.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways you improve your ability to manage multiple tasks, and the modern business environment, more effectively.
Step number one: dealing with distractions
Modern communications technology is both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand you’re able to communicate with colleagues and clients in real time across a variety of channels. It’s super-easy to get in touch with people and communicate critical information to them.
On the flip side, colleagues and clients are able to communicate with you in real time across a variety of channels.
You struggle to complete any task without being distracted by potentially urgent notifications from various apps and devices.
Every time you are distracted to the extent that you stop concentrating on the task at hand you break your flow.
Flow is the state you want to be in when you work. You’re fully immersed in your task, performing the task with energy and have lost your sense of time. You’re in the zone.
Once your flow state is broken it takes time to re-enter it, and you’re likely to resent the effort it takes to recapture that state.
The secret to dealing with distractions and staying in a flow state is to be selective about when you deal with communication.
You have a few options here:
- Use distraction blocker software like Freedom to put the lid on a variety of notification-generating apps on your desktop and smartphone for a set period of time.
- Choose a specific time of day to deal with specific communication channels like email, ensuring you deal with them at a scheduled time and in one batch.
- Leave a single communication channel open for emergencies, and make it clear to the people who have access to it that they should only use it to contact you for urgent matters.
- Deal with notifications during breaks.
Which brings us to step number two.
Step number two: take breaks
Taking regular breaks is almost as important for getting things done as avoiding distractions.
According to research conducted by the United States Army Research Institute, our ultradian rhythms run for 90 minute periods.
Ultradian rhythms govern our natural, hardwired rest and activity cycles during sleep and waking periods. At the end of each ultradian rhythm period you are at a lower state of alertness.
So, if possible you should take a break every 90 minutes. If you can’t manage that, then every 50 minutes is the next best option. Take your break for 15-20 minutes for optimal benefit.
If you struggle to focus for 50 minutes at a stretch, then the Pomodoro technique recommends that you take a 5 minute break every 25 minutes and a 15 minute break at the end of every 4th 25 minute period.
Here’s the kicker, when you check your notifications and messages during your breaks these potential productivity killers can actually be good for your overall focus and concentration.
This is because they take your analytical functions off the hook for a while. As a result your focus and decision making can actually improve, along with your mental stamina.
Step number three: have a master plan
Now that you have distractions under control and know how to maintain and optimized your ability to focus on your work, you need a plan to get that work done.
What you don’t want to do is wade into a pile of tasks head-first, without first deciding which tasks take priority or how long they will take.
Dealing with tasks without sorting them first is a sure-fire way to miss deadlines, create pressure for yourself and even waste time and energy on tasks that don’t achieve much.
The first step in organizing your tasks is to list them all.
Once that important step is taken care of, you’ll need to sort your tasks. A few systems have been developed to make task sorting and management easier.
1. The Eisenhower Matrix
Developed by former US President Eisenhower, the Eisenhower Matrix is a simple system of categorizing tasks according to two factors: urgency and whether they can be delegated.
Every task in your task list can be sorted into one of four categories:
- Urgent tasks that require you to complete them. These tasks are the ones you should focus on first.
- Urgent tasks that do not require you to complete them. Any tasks sorted into this category should be delegated to someone else.
- Less-urgent tasks that require you to complete them. These are all the tasks you can tackle once your urgent tasks are completed.
- Less urgent tasks that do not require you to complete them. These tasks can be removed from your task list altogether.
While it’s simple to implement, the Eisenhower Matrix requires daily management to ensure that all of your tasks are updated on a regular basis and that any new tasks are categorized appropriately.
2. The Getting Things Done method
The Getting Things Done method was developed by productivity consultant David Allen. It uses several simple steps to help you organize and prioritize your tasks.
The method is simple:
- Define every task. This includes establishing task urgency and importance. Also identify the next step once the task is completed, and what you want the task to accomplish.
- Determine whether each task can be done immediately or can only be done later.
- Note whether the task can be done by someone else.
- Once you have finished the above steps, do every task that takes 2 minutes or less in the list of tasks that can be done now. Delegate the tasks that can be done by someone else to a team member, and then continue working through your tasks by order of priority.
As is the case with the Eisenhower Matrix, you’ll need to keep your Getting Things Done task list up to date for this method to be effective.
Step number four: use the right tools
While modern technology and communication tools can cause serious distraction in the workplace, they can also streamline your business processes, saving you time and money.
This is particularly true of task management tools.
Tasks are the building blocks of business processes. Any business goal is reached through a series of individual tasks.
If you’re not using task management software, chances are you already record tasks on paper or spreadsheets and share them on communication channels like email, chat and face to face meetings.
While this can get the job done, it simply isn’t efficient:
- There’s no single location in which you can view and review tasks, which makes tasks harder to find and to track progress on them.
- Communication around tasks is either broken up across various communication channels, or vanishes into thin air when it takes place in person.
- Setting up and implementing repeatable processes takes more time than it should and your recurring task lists are stored either in employees’ heads or on documents that can be lost.
- You cannot easily link tasks to important business collateral relevant to the task, such as forms, documents or images. This makes it harder to collect and locate task collateral.
Needless to say, the various obstacles presented above not only mean you’re not as efficient or productive as you could be, but also prevent you from improving your situation.
Implementing a task management tool can rapidly and radically improve your ability to list, delegate, track and communicate around tasks using any online device.
- Cloud based software, which means information is safely stored in the cloud and can be accessed by any registered member of your team on any Internet-connected device.
- You can rapidly set tasks and task lists, and add tasks to specific categories, making them easier to locate and complete.
- Real time chat and notifications on tasks. You’ll get notifications on the task management app and by email whenever there is communication around a task associated with you.
- The ability to complete tasks directly from notification emails.
- The option to upload files to any task.
- Setting deadlines for any task, with your task manager software automatically following up on tasks to ensure they get done by their due dates.
- Being able to save effective task lists and workflows as templates, and re-use them in future. SOPHY even offers effective task management systems like Getting Things Done and the Eisenhower Matrix as free templates!
The only way to see the difference that a task management system can make to the effectiveness and productivity of your business is to try it out for yourself.