As the Internet, mobile devices and a myriad of other technological wonders increasingly dominate our professional lives, it becomes harder to concentrate on any single item. As such, accountants everywhere find themselves besieged by competing demands for their time and attention, practically commanding them to practice multitasking. “Answer the phone.” “Click here.” “Push here.” “Open me.” “Do it all at once!”
Equally unfortunate, multitasking is often promoted as a way for us to meet the complex demands of modern society -- and accomplish more in the same amount of time. If you're like most accounting professionals, all too often, you find yourself perpetually attempting to do many things at once: continue reviewing a client's records, handle email, be ready for an important phone call, etc. Yet, attempting to do many things simultaneously makes you less efficient and contributes to stress.
No matter what analogies or metaphors you might have heard, a human being is not a computer. Computers can multitask with ease; the Windows operating system, for example, is capable of running any number of programs without sacrificing accuracy or peace of mind. While there are some low-level tasks you can do simultaneously, such as eating and watching television, for accountants, multitasking is an idea whose time should never have come.
The primary cost of multitasking is, ironically, the very thing that you are often desperate to save: time. Multitasking is not only ineffective, it’s also potentially dangerous. On the highway, concentrating on a phone call inevitably detracts from a driver’s ability to focus on the road, putting them at dire risk of injury. Several studies have found that cell phone use while driving leads to an increased risk of automobile accidents.
Back in the office, how can handle your daily tasks without getting so stressed out or frustrated that you cannot finish any? The answer: Less is more. Science has shown that your brain works best when it gives sharp attention in one direction. There is no greater efficiency than focusing on the task at hand and giving it your full concentration.
When an airline flight is canceled and people rush to the reservation desk and scramble to catch the next plane or some other connection, does the gate agent attempt to take on five or 10 people at a time? No. He or she looks at the computer and handles a particular customer’s rerouting, looking up only sparingly. The attendant is not fazed by a 20-person line because it is clearly practical to proceed through it one customer at a time.
Suppose you are continually interrupted by the phone whenever you try to work at your PC. You cannot do your best work because when the phone rings, you lose your concentration and focus. How can you handle that situation so both jobs get the best of your attention? The key is a process called “mental completion.”
When the phone rings while you are working on your computer, silently recognize yourself by thinking, “I acknowledge myself for coming this far on this project.” Then, save the work on your screen and turn to the phone. Give the caller your complete and undivided attention; take notes, even smile into the phone. Do whatever you need to do in order to be successful on that call. At the conclusion of the call, put the phone down, acknowledge yourself for handling it and turn back to your earlier task.
The process of giving yourself a mental completion on all tasks, or even thoughts, sets up a mental partition. You gain more energy, more focus and more direction for your next task. Both your productivity and your peace of mind will improve.
Jeff Davidson, a.k.a. “The Work-life Balance Expert”®, speaks to accounting firms and associations on increasing their work-life balance so they can be more productive and competitive, and still have a life away from work. He is the author of Everyday Project Management, Breathing Space, and Simpler Living. Visit breathingspace.com.