One of my single favorite things said by an executive with a lot of clout was recently stated by GE Chairman and CEO, Jeff Immelt. He said something to the effect that company mantras worldwide used to scream that doing more with less was how we increased productivity and efficiency. Some still do. He admitted that we got it wrong. The new mantra is to do fewer things, better. Research suggests this is exactly right.
Business strategists Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi wrote in Harvard Business Review* that they found that companies who focused on a few things that they do well fared much better in the marketplace over the long run. The same concept applies to each of us individually.
Just last week I was giving a workshop on attention and focus to a group of executives. Out of the 62 people present, only two said they didn’t have too much to do on a day-to-day basis. Their lives are piled up with enormous amounts of work, demands from home, saving for retirement and/or college for their kids and the list goes on. Then there are all of the everyday urgent things like emails, bosses, clients and colleagues. Oh yeah…and meetings. We used to think the way to manage all of this was to multi-task. We now know that doesn’t work biologically because we can only place 100% of our attention on one thing at a time. When we split our attention by quick-switching between tasks – both tasks suffer. That’s fine if you’re doing two things that don’t require accuracy or safety or some degree of cognitive depth. But admit it, you’re writing emails to important clients while you’re supposed to be listening to a conference call in the background. We don’t do our most impressive work this way. We do our best when we manage our focus on one thing at a time.
Monitor yourself throughout the day. Are you allowing colleagues to interrupt you whenever it’s convenient for them? Are you interrupting yourself (it’s estimated that we have about 70,000 per day – easily interrupting ourselves to pay attention to something else)? Do you have so many things open on your computer or actual desktop that they all beg to be paid heed? Back it all down. Prioritize to do one thing at a time. Stick with each task until it’s complete or until you just can’t work on it anymore. Sounds so common sense, but apparently it’s not that common. The other benefit is that your anxiety level drops significantly when you stop asking your brain to be overcommitted to too many things.
One thing at a time. You’ll do it better without having to go back and correct inaccuracies. The likelihood that your work product is better goes up, too. Fewer things. Better.
*Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi. “The Coherence Premium.” Harvard Business Review 88, no. 6 (2010): 86-92.