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OPINION

Go With The Flow

Go With The Flow

Back when I was student in the UK, I had several courses to deal with at the same time. I was switching from Economics to Management Accounting faster than you could say ‘revision week’. Then I graduated, thinking to myself that this frenzied way of life was over. Little did I know that the audit profession, into which I dived headfirst after leaving university, sees multitasking as a necessary tool for survival in the professional landscape. It was university all over again, but with clients instead of modules, and with triple the frenzy.

In the beginning, there were times when I would be working on four audit engagements simultaneously – not from the office but out of the clients’ premises. I would wrap up one audit, then go on to the next, while planning the third in line, when the CFO of the first company I had audited would call me with answers to my pending questions, at which point I would rush to a meeting with him, while talking to the Chief Accountant of the second company on my way there. Breathe. Repeat.

I had high hopes that this fast-paced professional life would calm down as I progressed through my career. How naïve I was! Once I became an Audit Manager, things became “worse”. I could be working on eight engagements simultaneously and, while my physical presence at the clients’ premises was no longer required, my phone would not stop ringing. Clients, colleagues and partners were all competing for my attention and I was struggling to piece together my shattered concentration. Focusing on a single task became near impossible.

Something had to give.

I had a palpable feeling that my modus operandi was wrong. I was skimming through work issues instead of fully delving into them. You might think that doing ten things at the same time fires up your productivity but that’s a very wrong assumption and a dangerous one, too. When I saw mine hitting an all-time low, I knew that, in order to stay on top of my game (and to maintain my sanity), I needed to set limits and introduce boundaries that would allow me to channel all my energy and grey matter into one task at a time. It was at that point that I took drastic action, transforming myself from a multitasker to a singletasker. I haven’t looked back ever since.

A 2010 Harvard Business Review article, aptly titled ‘How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking’ asserts that, when we engage in multitasking, our productivity suffers, going down by as much as 40%. The same article also argues that doing multiple things simultaneously robs us of our brainpower. A study quoted therein has found that people who are constantly distracted by e-mails and phone calls can experience a 10-point fall in their IQs. That’s the same as skipping a night’s sleep. Scary, I know.

If you are a professional juggler as I used to be and you, too, want a change of pace, here are seven tips that helped me to get my multitasking habit under control:

1. Set a timeframe for each task: Every time you embark on a different task, allocate it a timeframe for completion, then stick to it religiously. If you feel that you are racing against the clock when working on a certain project, you tend to become competitive with none other than yourself. That’s a good thing in this context, as it will equip you with laser-sharp focus and help you enter a ‘flow state’ – that’s the state of mind where time feels frozen and productivity is on steroids; the kind you want to be in when you are working on something important. 
 
2. Pull the plug: Disconnect from the Internet and work like it’s 1980! Granted, back then people still had the phone to distract them but they didn’t have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a plethora of other virtual distractions. The more you stay offline, the greater the chances are that you will finish your allocated tasks in one go instead of going back and forth with them.
 
3. Install e-mail management software: Every time an e-mail arrives in your inbox, you get an instant gratification rush, not very different from the one you get from doing drugs. You cannot help but check that e-mail, derailing your train of thought in the process. Professional help must be employed in shaking off that addiction – that’s where e-mail management software, such as SaneBox, comes into play. Depending on the extent of your e-mail checking habit, such software can be a life saver. Or you can simply exert some fierce willpower and quit cold turkey, limiting your e-mail checking to twice per day. Bold, but effective. 
 
4. Set the (singletasking) tone: Hold a meeting with your team and let them know that constant distractions are not acceptable. Encourage them to assess the urgency of their questions and only bother you with those that call for immediate attention from your end. Moreover, persuade them to aggregate their questions and send them over in the form of a list, rather than asking them one at a time. If you cultivate the singletasking mentality in your team members, both sides stand to benefit from the resulting jolt to the attention span.
 
5. Be unreachable: Now, don’t get me wrong – you don’t need to go dark, like a U.S. Navy SEAL on a Black Op, in order to master the art of singletasking. The mere act of closing your office door and/or sending an e-mail to your team that, for the next couple of hours you will be working on a very important project, can work wonders for your attention. When you consciously know that nobody will bother you for a certain period of time (like at night, when everybody is asleep and you are burning the midnight oil binge-watching Netflix), you tend to enter the ‘flow state’ more easily.
 
6. Prioritize: One thing I used to hate was drafting to-do lists in the context of my work tasks for the day. Not anymore. What I once considered stress-inducing (a long list of tasks to complete), I now find vital for my concentration. Going about your workday in bullet-point form motivates you to stay focused on individual tasks for as long as it takes to complete them. There is no worse way to end a workday than by leaving a to-do list incomplete, thus your professional ego will push you towards crossing out each and every item on it, one task at a time! 
 
7. Reward yourself: Every time you manage to maintain your undivided attention throughout a given task, give yourself a round of (inner) applause. Or a couple of World of Tanks rounds. Or a big piece of cake. Whatever tickles your fancy. As long as you look forward to getting something upon reaching the finish line of a work project, you will be driven and dedicated like a marathon runner who is heading towards the Kallimarmaro (Panathenaic) Stadium in Athens.
 

If you are a heavy multitasker, it will be difficult at first to make the switch to doing one thing at a time instead of many. Don’t be tempted to revert to your old habits, no matter how much you’ll be craving to send that e-mail to your team while talking on the phone with a client, or to text your spouse about milk and bread while attending a management meeting. Stand your ground. Focus on the task at hand. And go gentle into that ‘flow state’. You will never be the same (professional) once you have converted to singletasking!

 

Info: Spyros Yiassemides BA MSc ACA is a Partner in Yiassemides & Co, a professional storyteller, and a natural-born cinephile. His PhD in Film Studies is just around the corner.

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