When I was a younger man
Younger, energetic, and supple, I said I could do five things at once. It was the early ‘nineties, and – at least for me – expertise was only called on if you flubbed it. Speed, efficiency, and carrying three sheets of plywood was what it was all about. Expertise – a longish chat sitting on a sawhorse to talk about why we do it that way – was only called on if you flubbed it. Most saw it as wasted time. When cash is the goal, I get it.
Older now, and I don’t care
I ran into something similar at a different job once, a couple of years ago, with a new manager who was hot to show off to corporate heads and hotter still to show me he was boss. I’m one of a handful of people certified to write a report to the NRC as a representative of our company. It’s an odd report explaining why we can ignore them regarding the issue in question. In general, the NRC takes a very dim view to being ignored unless A) you submit this report before you ignore them, and B) every dot of said report is perfect, as is every crossed t, every jot, and every tittle.
I was just starting one of these monsters. For each change – there were 158 – I needed to explain how we used to do it, why we did it that way, how we intend to do it now, and why we can do it this way without tripping over regulations. In the worst case – I don’t know if this has ever happened – you screw up the report, and the NRC calls your company, pulls your license to operate, and costs the company and shareholders a few hundred million dollars because of your screw-up.
This morning, ready to go and firmly ensconced in my cube, my new manager comes to me.
“So, you’re going to start on the procedure report today? The 5059? “
“Right now,” I said. “The thing’s so huge it’ll take ‘til lunch just to collect the docs I need.”
He nodded. “Great.” And without chit or chat or a smile, he said, “I need that completed report on my desk by lunch tomorrow.”
I probably looked like I just sucked on a lemon. Confused, I said, “I don’t mean to be an ass, but…are you qualified to write this report? I ask because I wonder if you know what it entails?”
“No,” he said. “I’ve avoided it since I’ve been here. I can’t see how that has anything to do with you finishing it by tomorrow.”
“You know there are 158 changes I have to address? And that I have to explain each one? This thing’s gonna run thirty-five to fifty pages.”
“Right,” he said. “I still don’t see why that’s a problem.”
I went on, talking to the walls. “And you know that, when I’m done, I sign it – I mean I take a pen and put my signature on it – as a representative of you, our plant manager, our plant, and our company. And then I send it off to the NRC who puts every word under a microscope?”
“Can you do it by tomorrow, or should I get someone else?” He was definitely the big man here.
I laughed at the not-very-hidden threat. “I’m pleased as punch for you to get someone else to do it. I think Jerry’s qualified. Heck, I’ll go to the poop plant for a week if you want someone else to do it. But here’s the thing,” and my laughing became serious, “if you have me do it, I will do it as best as I can, and I don’t care how long it takes. This is a big deal, and our license is on the line. If I’m done tomorrow, you’ll see it then. If I take a week, it takes a week. If it takes a month, it takes a month. I don’t care.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said, waving his hands. “I’m not accusing you of anything. I want this thing done right. You take however long it takes you to get it right.” He turned and marched out of the cube with his tail drooping a little.
It took three weeks. The plant manager signed it, and that was it. No word of concern from any other department or from the NRC. And I truly didn’t care one whit how long it took.
Multitasking. Kind of…
So. To multitasking.
You can’t do it. At least not in the sense of office efficiency. It makes for slow work and is prone to mistakes.
But in reality, we multitask all day long. We look at the sky and remember how much we have left in our bank account, and our brain tells our lungs to expand, and we think it’s time for our 14th cup of coffee. We think we are multitasking, but it’s really our brain shifting focus like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. Our brain has simply chunked several tasks into tiny steps, and then our brain switches back and forth as we sequentially complete each step of each task. The effort leaves us distracted, slow, unfocused, and often confused.
There’s a lot of good reading about multitasking, most of it pointing in this direction. It appears that some people might be better at it than others. Some people have more flexible thinking. But I’m much more efficient using the Pomodoro Technique: a single and searing focus on one thing for twenty minutes and then a five or ten-minute break to do whatever I want. Rinse and repeat.
- I think they’re strumming a broken guitar, but it’s a good word for your resume. Indeed.com on how to multitask.
- One of my favorite sources for medical advice, the Cleveland Clinic weighs in on multitasking. They’re not in favor.
- One hopes these brain guys know something of what they write about. Switching Costs at the American Psychological Association.
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