your multi-tasking is hurting you, you should track your time for a month, and more

Over at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog today, I take a look at several big work-related stories in the news right now: whether multi-tasking reduces the quality of your work the rest of the time, why you should track your time for a month, and more. You can read it here.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. So Very Anonymous*

    100% agree about multi-tasking being a larger problem.

    Also, I’ve learned that I absolutely have to check email first thing when I get into work, especially on Mondays. Because I am not a morning person, checking first thing allows me to triage and respond to the “easy” and/or the “urgent” questions right away, and then I can let my brain work on the harder questions in the background until early afternoon, when I’m more up for tackling them.

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      My job requires me to check email regularly. However, I’ve always done so first thing. To me it’s no different than going through your postal mail as soon as you get it. (And plenty of places still expect *someone* to do this.)

      This reminds me that my personal mail has been piling up, and I need to take care of that when I get home. :(

      1. So Very Anonymous*

        Oh, I absolutely keep mine open for the whole day and respond throughout the day — it’s just that in my job people try to contact me over evenings/weekends (even though I’m not meant to be available outside of working hours) and all the advice re NOT checking it first thing would make me so much more anxious.

        However, I don’t check my work email when I’m not physically at work unless there’s a very specific reason for needing to. It took some doing to get myself to that point, but it’s been really worthwhile. I’ve never used my work email for personal correspondence for exactly that reason.

        1. TL -*

          My friends have their work email go to their phone and it drives me nuts because we’ll be out having fun, they’ll glance down and suddenly, it’s “Oh, Boss A emailed and they want this done” in the middle of our outing. :(

      2. Nancypie*

        I check email on my phone before I leave the house. That way I have the commute to think about things, and I know what I’m walking in to.

  2. Mimmy*

    #1 – I’m not so sure that this would apply to every job. The jobs I’ve had required a lot of multi-tasking, which I often struggle with, and probably why I lost the one job I had providing teapot information and resources – either several calls one after the other or having to take a call when I’m writing up a call log.

    #3 – Very interesting! I think many people feel bad if they don’t at least read emails right when they arrive, so they leave the program open all. the. time. I am criminally guilty of this myself, but I like the idea of scheduling time each morning for check and respond to emails and voice messages.

    1. A.*

      Yes, I loathe multi-tasking and I’m not very good at it. But a lot of jobs require a certain amount of it and I think it’s especially true for a lot of entry-level positions (see: admin work). It’s hard to get a leg up if you’re not good at switching gears frequently and smoothly when early career jobs call for a lot of it, even if you’re exceptionally good at deep focus on high value projects. Knowing my ineptitude at multi-tasking *did* help shape my career trajectory in terms of what kinds of jobs made me feel happy and productive, but early on I didn’t have that luxury to choose and it was a bit of an uphill battle to get to where I am now because of it.

    2. Jennifer*

      Yeah, we need to be able to drop anything we’re doing on a second’s notice, pretty much, and drop it to do whatever someone’s telling us to do.

  3. Elysian*

    I have to track my billable time for work anyway, and doing it definitely makes me more productive. When I look at what I spent time on (I spent 1.5 hours dealing with unspecified email and office activities? What the heck was I doing during that time?!?) it keeps me honest, for sure.

    1. Not Karen*

      It makes me less productive because if I’m required to work 8 hours but a project is only going to take me 4 to complete, I spend 8 hours on it because otherwise I would have nothing to do for the other 4 hours.

        1. Not Karen*

          No, because if I wasn’t tracking my time my manager wouldn’t know how long I spent on a project, so I would finish the project in 4 hours and then chill or whatever for the other 4 hours. I can’t very well put down that I chilled for 4 hours on my timesheet, so I have to extend my project time to fill it. So if I wasn’t tracking my time I wouldn’t feel the need to extend project time out to prove that I’m not slacking at work, even though the fact that I get all my work done should be proof enough.

  4. F.*

    #1: I have a t-shirt that says “Multitasking: Screwing up several things at once” Yep.
    #3: I can’t imagine even having a job where I could ignore emails for weeks or months(!) without being fired. Email is part of the job. May not be the most interesting part or get you noticed and promoted, but it is still a very necessary part of the job and needs to be attended to accordingly.

  5. Anonymous Educator*

    Am I the only one who never gets overwhelmed by email? If anything, I would love more emails and less in-person drop-ins or unscheduled phone calls. Seriously, even when I had a receptionist job with hundreds of emails per day, I was able to clear my inbox (i.e., respond to every message) every day… voicemail box, not so easily cleared.

    1. Mythea*

      I am with you – I can handle several hundred e-mails easily – but more then 3 voicemails and I struggle!

    2. Charlotte Collins*

      I feel the same way. I have to keep track of three email boxes, and I’d rather they added another one and took away my phone line. (Documentation is also an important part of my job, so I’m always a little leery of the people who will only call and never email. Especially since they seem to have different recollections of conversations than the other participants.)

      I prefer texting on my cell, too.

    3. anonanonanon*

      I wish I had more emails. My company uses Gmail for our company emails and I found that if I created labels for certain things, it was easy to filter what needed an immediate response, what could be put off until later, and what was a generic “product X passed QA/files are available/invoices have been sent in/etc” email that I didn’t need to spend much time on.

      I hate unscheduled phone calls or drop-ins because they usually take way more time to respond to than a bunch of emails.

      1. Analyst*

        I’m at a company with Too Much Email and I still greatly prefer it to a VM or random phone call. I sit near the IT department and am overhearing them right now talking about how our phone system is currently down. Pray to the gods of open plan office spaces that it may never be fixed.

      2. Cafe au Lait*

        My University also uses Gmail. I’ve filtered all the University-wide information emails into a single folder. Once a week I go through and read the subject headings. About 75% I can delete on the spot. The other 25% I need to skim with only one or two needing action.

        The only problem I have (now) is I star emails that need action. Sometimes the issue takes a while to resolve and it highly disrupts my “zero inbox” goal for the day.

    4. Noah*

      Yeah, email doesn’t really bother me. It is easy to close and focus for a few hours if necessary. Even IM is easy to close out of and ignore. The phone thing is more complicated. We can set the phone on DND and send calls directly to voicemail, but it is frowned upon. A ringing phone will pull me right out of whatever I’m doing and by then I might as well answer it and figure out what the person wants.

    5. So Very Anonymous*

      I’m not stressed out by email in general. I would much, much rather handle email than phone calls or in-person drop-ins. And most of the questions I get are actually much better handled by email, since I often simply can’t provide an immediate off-the-top-of-head answer and have to do some research first. My outgoing voicemail requests that those kinds of questions be sent to me via email. Email is so much better!

    6. Matt*

      Yes, this exactly. I wish I’d get more email and less phone calls, unfortunately we have a strong phone culture, everyone calls everyone about everything and it’s expected that you always answer your phone when at your desk (to internal coworkers, it’s not about customers!). Also, about 2/3 of our office population have mobile phones provided (luckily I still belong to the other 1/3) – and the more the first number grows, the more it becomes generally expected to *always* be available via phone – sometimes I come back from a one hour meeting or even from the bathroom and have to explain myself where I had been “so long” and why I couldn’t be reached by phone …

      Checking and answering my email is first thing in the morning, and I generally try to be very responsive via email, otherwise they would all start to call me, and I want to encourage them to use more email instead ;)

  6. Cat*

    I find time tracking to be “soul killing” rather than “helpful,” but I suspect some of this is a personality thing. And maybe it’s different when your not judged on that time tracking.

    1. Florida*

      Agree. Once I worked at a nonprofit that required everyone below the manager level to track their hours. The work week was 40 hours, and they had to account for 35 hours. It was demoralizing to the staff.

      There was no purpose to this. It wasn’t to bill clients or anything like that. It was because the big boss thought that everyone would work harder. Plus she was being so generous by giving you a full hour each day that you didn’t have to account for! What really happened is that people would say they spent an hour reading an article in a professional journal, but really they spent half of that time shooting the breeze with a co-worker.

      We talked about it in almost every single management meeting because it was so demoralizing to the staff. The big boss never let up. She insisted that the staff needed this level of “accountability.”

    2. Panda Bandit*

      Yeah, time-tracking only makes you more productive if you want to be more productive.

      1. Cat*

        Is that the insult I think it is? I, of course, want to be more productive; I don’t find time tracking to be a way that accomplishes that for me (and I have done it every day of my career).

        1. OfficePrincess*

          I think what Panda is saying is that if you’re looking to be more productive, tracking can help by making you realize “huh, I spent 4 hours on AAM this week, maybe I could dial that back”, but if you’re just tracking your time for the sake of tracking your time, it won’t help much.

        2. Panda Bandit*

          I’m not insulting you, Cat. At my job, time tracking would most definitely be a soul killing experience. It’s not a one size fits all solution for numerous reasons.

      2. So Very Anonymous*

        I didn’t read Panda Bandit’s comment as an insult but more as a kind of commiseration? Like, if you don’t want to use it as a productivity tool, it won’t make you more productive. For me it’d be a total waste of time and would make me way less productive because of the time spent trying to figure out how to track things. I’d get all caught up in coming up with categories blah blah blah and actual productivity would tank…. the only thing I’d be producing would be the time-tracking itself.

  7. AFT123*

    In the words of the great Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

  8. Weekday Warrior*

    I really recommend Cal Newport’s recent book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Part II especially sets out many intriguing ideas to maximize concentration and minimize distraction. The key takeaway is that we do have to tailor our approach to the needs of our particular jobs and temperaments but that we can all figure out how to engage in more deep work – and find more satisfaction. Practical, inspiring stuff!

  9. AeroFanOne*

    Oh, I’d love to read Deep Work, but more importantly, I wish my boss would read and take it to heart. We are constantly being coached, chastised, finger shook at, and just generally griped at about not being able to be GREAT customer service reps but also be GREAT at billing/paying, QCing, and other tasks that really really really require focus and concentration. No matter how we position it to the boss, it’s simply not acknowledged. Yes, stop everything and take care of that customer but do not effing make any errors on those deep focus tasks. Ever.

    Even though we won’t allow you the time, space, or culture to deep focus.


    1. Koko*

      Years back I worked as a fundraiser for a nonprofit that laid off its office manager and gave all of his work except the taxes/bookkeeping to me. It totally crippled me as a fundraiser, because to be effective at that you need to be planning ahead and not just flying by the seat of your pants. And most of the work of an office manager involves putting out fires and dealing with things that need to be dealt with right now. Like – the printer is broken, the WiFi is down, boss needs a lunch reservation for later today, the phone is ringing and a member has a question.

      You can’t expect someone whose job it is to deal with the “right now” to also be very good at stuff that isn’t “right now.” The “right now” stuff is always going to take priority by its nature, and the other stuff will suffer.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        Exactly. Companies are generally getting so cheap! Layoffs and hiring freezes mean people are expected to do the work of 2 or 3 employees. Then they finger point and shake their heads when mistakes happen or things don’t get done when they should or projects languish when no one pays attention to them.

        It is such a short sighted approach. They only see $$ saved and not how it cripples both the employees and the business in the long run.

  10. MissDisplaced*

    I admit, I have a problem with Multitask Overload lately because my boss left and I’m doing the work of two now.
    I used to be so good at focusing and ticking items off my to-do list. But with the change of workload, I am constantly bombarded with emails that are “urgent” and I find it hard to focus on just 1 or 2 tasks at a time. If I have 3 urgent tasks, soon 5 more urgent items come in on top each day and then it feels like nothing gets completed and put away. People get mad if I don’t answer quickly, but then mad when other tasks don’t get done quickly either.
    Very frustrating! And I have no boss, so no where to go either.

  11. Elizabeth West*

    I wish I had four hands like the guy in the stock photo. I could clean the house much faster.

    I think time tracking might be something I could (and probably should) do at home–especially before I take on yet another blog challenge, but I don’t want to do it at the office. And for emails, I leave it up all day because I never know when someone is going to ask me a question, etc. If I don’t answer right away, some people like to IM me (“Did you get my email?”). Yes, I got it. Errggh. Give me two seconds to read it.

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