You are looking at a job advert; they tell you about the company and what a great place it is to work in. Then you get into job description requirements; you check away what skills you have, what you lack, and where your experience can make up for what you lack. Then you read, “must be able to multitask in a fast past environment”.
This use of language and expectations, is, on the one hand, trying to filter out who they don’t want, while on the other, it may fall under a ‘want’ or a ‘wish list’ rather than being an essential skill required for the job. In either case, this is excluding the right people and that includes neurodiverse talent. In addition, the language is misleading. Why? Well, let’s start with multitasking; this is simply a myth.
To understand why, first we need to examine the origins of the term ‘multitasking’, which derives from a paper written by IBM in an analysis of their computer system 360. Very simply, it was the observation of how fast the machine could start a new task while the current task was running. Around the same time, the term started being applied to human activities.
Over the years, research has shown that the human mind cannot multitask due to what they call bottlenecking. In other words, because of memory, attention span and cognitive function, the human brain cannot juggle any amount of tasks, meaning we can only manage one task at a time.
Now, let’s not assume one task at a time means jumping from task to task because the result is both a loss of time and energy. Every time you move from one task to the next, the brain needs to reset to let go of what’s it doing from task A and then to recenter and begin to focus on task B. Each time there is this reset, time is lost, so let us estimate that the mind takes 5 mins to reset between tasks.
Let’s give an example. There are two major intense tasks, A & B. In reality they need one hour each and both need to be done within the hour. You decide to spend 10 minutes per task. Each time you switch between the two tasks the brain takes 5 mins to reset. So it goes like this:
Task A: 10 mins
Brain reset: 5 mins
Task B: 10 mins
Brain reset: 5 mins
Just in the first cycle, you spent 30 minutes, 10 minutes each went to both tasks A & B and 10 minutes were spent just so the brain can reset. By the second cycle, you have spent 50 minutes, meaning 20 minutes per task and 20 minutes on brain reset. As you can see, this is not an effective way to get tasks done. Your time is wasted, there is an increase in errors, the energy you use is wasted and lastly, you lose money. Your energy, time and focus would be better spent just focusing on one task.
This one’s kind of funny; the business has developed an environment that is a fast-paced and most likely chaotic, environment that excludes potentially good quality talent because ‘multitasking’ is expected to occur, which we have just shown to be ineffective at best.
Yet, if the business designed an environment that took all types of diverse talent into consideration, with a realistic pace where different skill sets can function for a task to be completed, then they, as a business would be much richer for it.
Tools to deploy
A missing element that a business could employ as part of their on-boarding process is to create training programs on productive strategies, in particular, time management, mastering your calendar and how to set priorities. It is always assumed that people either have this naturally, where taught or may have developed the skill on their own. The truth is this is not the case and can be extremely difficult for neurodiverse talent, for example, dyslexic, ADHD or dyspraxia talent.
What are some strategies you can deliver to your team?
Set times are blocked in the calendar for one task, followed by a buffer to allow for energy to restore and the brain to be reset between blocks.
For example, 8 am to 9 am respond to emails, 9 am to 9:15 am buffer, and then 9:15 to 10:15 a new block. As you can see from this example, this is a spaced-out task which gives the person the ability to concentrate.
This one can be used in parallel with time blocking, with one aspect we did not cover with multitasking and the truth about how many tasks can be done in a given workday. On average, a person can only focus on 3 to 4 tasks per day. So why not create theme days where you can allocate special themes and just focus on the top 4 things to get done related to that theme?
For example, Monday theme blog writing: research, brainstorm, create an outline, and write an article.
In the above example, an employee is focused on just that theme for a half-day or full-day and things go well. The theme is completed by the day with each task associated with it. Moreover, you combined block timing to each of those tasks, i.e. 8 am to 9 am research, 15 min buffer, 9:15 to 10:15 brainstorm, etc.
Beware of the Time Myth
I talked about this before and I am mentioning it again, to avoid assumptions. Be aware of how long a person may take to do a task. So, you might think that research of an article “should” take them an hour… well, an hour for whom exactly? What if it takes them an hour and a half or two hours? Because it takes you an hour doesn’t mean the same for them and if they go over an hour, how are you going to treat them?
Nowhere am I saying there can’t be a reasonably expected time for a task. What we need to be aware of, especially when assigning tasks and time management, is to assign a task where you are aware of how long they need to be able to complete the task (s) in a successful manner that is a win-win for both parties and they are valued for their contribution.
There are a number of methods that can be deployed here. I use the top 3 and top 5 methods, The top 3 are the priorities of the day and the top 5 are important. If I can get to them, great and if not choose the top 3 out of the 5 and set them for the following day.
You can use tools like Todoist or Trello to help with organization, setting reminders, putting colour labels, etc. The great thing about tools like these is they are visual, can be placed as widgets on the screen and they have apps for desktops to mobile devices.
Once more, ‘Time blocking’ comes in handy here. Let us say there is a task, making phone calls, say 9 calls, that you can split into batches through the day such as morning, lunch and before the end of the day. You divide that into 3, this way you do not spend half the day calling, talking or leaving messages and you make room for other things that can happen in between.
The toughest challenge, especially in an unrealistic fast-paced environment, is to be able to focus. When concentrating on just one task at a time during the block that you have scheduled, you want to remove distractions as much as possible. That means no emails, phones, no people pulling you away from what you need to get done. This may even mean trying to find a quiet room where you can just concentrate.
When looking at how we can create the most optimal environments where the right skills and tools are provided, we can develop a workplace that welcomes all talent. To accomplish this, businesses, managers and human resources need to remove the myth of multitasking and fast-paced environments from job descriptions, job posting and their own mindsets. Instead, focus on being people-centric where you focus on their strengths, ask how you can accommodate them and onboard them with skill development strategies such as the ones pointed out above.