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The best way to multitask? Focus on one priority at a time

The best way to multitask? Focus on one priority at a time
Try to schedule your day so that every hour is assigned to a particular priority.
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You are juggling multiple responsibilities at work, all with rapidly approaching deadlines. Meanwhile, your personal obligations are piling up. You are beginning to feel the pressure of it all. If this sounds the least bit familiar to you, just know that you are not alone. The mantra at many companies today is to do more with less people. How do you approach managing multiple priorities?

The truth of the matter is that multitasking just isn’t possible if you want to deliver at the highest levels. The human mind may be truly amazing, but it does have limitations in dealing with many things at any one moment in time. Let’s look at a hypothetical example. You have multiple client proposals to write, a business case on a new initiative is coming due to your boss, you have numerous client meetings to schedule, your inbox is flooded with emails and you literally feel that you don’t have time to think. All of these items on your to-do list have a high priority and you are having trouble focusing on one without thinking of the others. The more your mind drifts off topic, thinking about other projects, the more productive time you are losing. 

The best way to maximize productivity is through compartmentalization. Here’s my suggestion: Imagine you have a shelf on your wall and on that shelf are numerous boxes. Each of those boxes represent one of your projects or initiatives. The secret is to open only one box at a time, and while that box is open that particular project receives 100% of your undivided attention. It is absolutely incredible how much more productive you will be when you stay focused on one priority at a time. Try to schedule your day so that every hour is assigned to a particular priority. Another box is not opened until the prior box has been closed. 

I find email to be a distraction that eats up a great deal of time. Block specific times for your email and focus on cleaning out your inbox. This is much better than working on mails throughout the day and continually distracting yourself from focusing on your other priorities. Emails should be in a totally separate box on your imaginary shelf. Carve out specific times to work on emails when all other boxes are closed. When you are working on other boxes, your email box should be closed and sitting back on that imaginary shelf.

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What happens when more and more projects are falling on your plate, thus creating more boxes on your shelf? Ask yourself if it is possible to begin delegating some responsibilities. Many people hesitate to delegate because they have the feeling that others will not do the job as well as they will, and that may in fact be true. However, the only way our employees will grow is to empower them with responsibilities and give them every opportunity to succeed. Once you start to delegate, you will be able to reduce the number of boxes on your imaginary shelf. You will also find that your team will be more productive. 

If you have a family at home, this is your most important box. Many people (including me) find there just aren’t enough hours in a work day to accomplish everything and our work time spills over to our personal time. This is where we lose work-life balance, but most importantly, when we negatively affect members of our family. Time with our spouses, partners, children and parents are important and we don’t want to take them for granted. If working at home after work hours becomes a must at times, choose times that are least likely to interfere with family time. For me, that’s very early in the morning when my family’s day has not yet begun. The key is not to shortchange your family, as they represent the most important box on your shelf.

To this day, I use the visual of the boxes and the shelf. My hope is that you will find yourself to be much more productive and less stressed after embracing this strategy.

Cohen is associate dean of the Office of Executive Programs at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He contributes to the Washington Post’s Career Coach column.

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