The Rise of the Uni-Tasker
By Daniel A. Smith, CMA®, CPA, Senior Business Intelligence Strategist at J. Walter Thompson, member of the IMA® Young Professionals Committee and IMA Leadership Academy
Does this type of status update sound familiar?
“I’m working on the client landscape analysis for the product management team, the vendor contract evaluation is in progress, I’ve got a good chunk of the preliminary third quarter budget complete, and I wrapped up that ad-hoc request from account management yesterday.”
These are the types of updates we all love to give. Look at all the projects we are involved with and handling – we are masters of multi-tasking. However, we’re also likely killing ourselves from stress and aren’t able to work to our full potential.
Despite the emphasis in modern business on “multi-tasking,” and the kudos received for juggling multiple projects, research shows fully concentrating on one project is a significantly better use of time as opposed to chipping away at several different tasks at once.
“Uni-tasking” is the better way to go, but how do we switch from a profession that seemingly demands multi-tasking? Many of us have gotten used to scattering our focus across our to-do lists, and we need help to reel it back in. Here are four tips to help us wield our concentration in a more effective manner:
- Take the Time to Make the Time
Create a list of your current projects. Spend the first ten minutes of each day outlining what is most important to complete, then put it in a list. Any.do  is a great tool for this, as it allows the same list of “to-dos” to be shared between your phone and web browser. It even reminds you to plan your day at nine each morning.
- Turn Off Message and Email Alerts
Plan your day wisely between work and responding to colleagues. Don’t feel the need to respond immediately to every email or message that comes your away, as not every message requires an instant response. In fact, even if you don’t think you have trouble multi-tasking, you should complete the task on hand before replying to non-immediate messages. Why? Because studies, including a set of clinical trials  conducted at King’s College London, show that frequent distractions tend to lower IQ scores more than smoking marijuana.
- Pencil In Your Work Time
We live in a world of meetings, which often means trying to multi-task and complete work while in a meeting. This obviously is not an effective way to operate, as multi-tasking has been shown by psychologists and neurobiologists  to be detrimental to retaining and understanding information. If you find yourself having to complete work during a meeting, try opening up your calendar and scheduling a meeting for yourself. This will block time for you to actually get work done. If a meeting comes up that is important, someone will specifically ask that you attend.
- Don’t Forget to Reflect and Learn
When we feel strapped for time and overwhelmed with responsibilities, it is easy to sacrifice independent study and reflection for the sake of work or play. We must remember that learning doesn’t end at college, and knowledge is an investment. Taking a few hours a week to learn a new programming language or a new analytical process could save you hundreds of hours in the future.
For example, you’ve been given a .csv file with 200,000 rows, and you need to determine how often the first column equals the seventh column. (Perhaps you need to identify repeat purchases by customer.) The first instinct of most accountants would be to open the file in Excel, use Text To Columns, create a conditional “IF” statement in a new column which would return 1 if they equaled and zero if they didn’t, and then add the values for the new column.
Alternatively, if you knew R/S-PLUS, you could accomplish the same thing in two lines of code:
table.data <- data.frame(read.csv("<file path\data.csv>"))
count.match <- sum(ifelse(table.data[,1] == table.data[,7],1,0))
All this can be accomplished without ever opening the file. It can also be replicated – meaning after you have written it once, you’ll be able to quickly and easily use it afterward.
Ultimately, while multi-tasking is an impressive feat of the human brain, it falls short in terms of two essential elements of the modern workplace: comprehension and productivity. Tackling one project at a time guarantees that each task gets the attention and thought it deserves, and that you’ll have given a more full and focused effort.
As a business intelligence strategist at JWT, Daniel specializes in adding value to all things data. From collection, storage, aggregation, analysis, to presentation, he is always looking for the next business insight or opportunity. Daniel is involved in the IMA® Young Professionals Committee and IMA Leadership Academy as a speaker, author, mentor, and mentee. He was awarded IMA Young Professional of the Year for 2013 and has been selected “Chair Mentor” for the incoming Global IMA Young Professionals Advisory Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .