• Fiona Hurle

Multitasking is a dead waste of time

You know how the days starts, you have a plan and then it goes into a tail spin as everything becomes a reactionary measure to another email, hallway conversation, emergency problem or poorly planned project. And unfortunately assistants around the world are trying to multitask to keep all the balls in the air.

Let's put this into a practical scenario: you have four key things that need actioning. Book a appointment with an external stakeholder, type the minutes of a meeting, review correspondence before final sign off, research a venue for the product launch. All very different tasks with very different levels of focus and energy needed.

Now it might seem like you're achieving something by opening up the tab on the web to do a local search of venues and have a quick look as you make the phone call to book the appointment. During that call you remember the minutes from the meeting - sheez they are due out in a few hours and you haven't started them, so you open the template while you're on hold for the phone call. Whilst you do that you start reviewing the correspondence..... sound familiar?

It might appear like you are 'achieving' and will be the frontrunner to get the recognition award for 'hard worker of the quarter', although you haven't really achieved anything in the most direct and productive way in these last 10 minutes. Sure, you have started tasks but none of them have your complete focus and attention. Which is really saying none of them matter and you don't really care about the quality of your work. It's a recipe for slip ups and mistakes - something you really don't want to be dealing with.


Take a moment to breathe.

Our predecessors have set us up for failure in teaching us this 'skill' - yet it's a one way train to overwhelm and burnout. How is running around in a flurry, half starting things, something you want to strive to be like?

Over the years behaviours have been rewarded, although we've been rewarded for the behaviours that don't serve US as individuals in these challenging roles. They're just the behaviours that were taught and passed onto us.

Think of how often you have seen the person who is stressed, running around with papers flying everywhere, late for meetings, juggling multiple priorities be 'acknowledged' as a HARD WORKER. As the one that 'holds' everything together in the office.....

I call B.S. They are ineffective people pleasers!

They got recognition for their less than desirable traits of not being organised, not being able to say no to more work on their plate, constantly missing deadlines and that reinforced to others 'this is how we want you to work'.

So a tribe of workers was created just the same as them, and then management realised productivity and results were low. So they cut budgets, cut people and then demanded those that were left increase their productivity. Yet the tribe that was left still have the same ingrained behaviours. So they did more of the disorganised multi tasking, increased their stress and overwhelm to the next level and so the cycle continues.

What can you do NOW?

Own your day

Whilst you are an 'assistant' you are also a MANAGER of self. Step up to that very important responsibility by

  • prioritise YOURSELF - set time to take a break from your desk and eat food AWAY from your computer,

  • set a daily INTENTION, or way of being. Choose fun, curious, present, honest or something else that you wish to embody. Leaders are always learning about themselves and others,

  • organising your workspace to support your ability to focus (wear headphones or book a meeting room if you need to block out noise when you type up minutes),

  • create a workspace you want to be in (flowers, plants, inspiration quotes),

  • communicating what you are focusing on with key people so they know you need no interruptions during that task.

  • set a regular daily time to meet with your manager so you can minimise the multiple 5 second 'I have an idea' or 'can you check this out' and get their thought downloads all at once.

Schedule regular deadlines and actions into your calendar

Knowing what your regular deadlines are helps you plan out the steps to meet that timeframe, and then balance out other tasks that come up. Schedule in the actions needed leading up to completing the task eg bring together report, review report, seek feedback from directors, input changes, final report review and circulation. Break this down into the 5 steps and map them out in your schedule rather than trying to do it in a rush all at once. You'll also notice that each step requires a different focus and energy - bringing together a report is a different focus to sitting a reviewing the detail of the report.

Time block your week and focus

There are always tasks that need to happen on a regular basis. If we can remove the pressure on our 'mind' to 'remember' to do the task (because lets face it, you already have a million life things to remember to survive, pay the bills, feed the dog, pick up the dry cleaning) then we can get into the 'focus zone' with time blocks and really churn through tasks and close them off. Maybe it is something like this:

Daily 9.00-10.30am - forward look at diary for the day/week, reminders to staff of due items, sort new invitation/meeting request (for processing later in the day)

Tuesdays 10.30am - 12.00pm - attend maangemetn meeting

Tuesdays 2.00pm - 3.00pm - type up minutes from management meeting and circulate

Wednesdays and Fridays 10.30am - 11.30am - travel bookings

Wednesdays 2.00pm - 3.00pm - administration team meeting and process improvement brainstorm)

Tuesdays and Thursdays 3.00pm - 5.00pm - speech writing (get yourself into a really creative zone for this so perhaps find a desk by a window, some music, scented oils, café) Let others know

We teach others how to treat us, so if you help them understand that you are trying a new working style for productivity and focus then most people will be on board with you (and want to know how it goes so they can do the same). Be forthcoming and proactive to let people know when you will be 'off-line' for drop-ins so that they can plan to visit when you are available to assist. Most people don't set out to be that interruption that pushes you over the edge so help them to help you.

A visual way you can communicate that you are in a 'focus zone' is with a red flag for 'not now' and a green flag for 'enquiries welcome' or a little whiteboard at your desk saying something like 'In the focus zone - I'll be available again at 3.00pm - thanks for understanding'. Know that there may be instances where there are URGENT things that need attention and you will need to be a little flexible with this, and over time you will be able to help people understand what really is 'urgent' in the scale of things you deal with or if they can perhaps deal with it (yes, your catering requirement for 3 weeks time is important but not urgent...now).

If it feels awkward or 'selfish' at first, that's ok. Know that this is like learning a new language and your colleagues might wonder 'where this all came from' but in the end EVERYONE benefits.

"Do one thing great, rather than many things poorly"

Good Reads:

The One Thing by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan