Want to be a more effective CEO? Stop multi-tasking.

The dangers of multi-tasking

Originally posted at mattmunson.me. Subscribe here for regular updates.

I recently ran across the work of prior Stanford professor Clifford Nass on the subject of multi-tasking. In his career as an academic, Nass was deeply interested in our unfolding relationships to computers. He was committed to exploring the deeply-held, but often incorrect beliefs we hold as a culture about our interactions with rapidly-evolving technologies.

Nass discovered some very interesting things about multi-tasking. It turns out that while many of us fancy ourselves effective multi-taskers, none of us are. It is an illusion that we get more done when trying to do multiple things at once. We are more effective and have higher output when we approach tasks, projects, or decisions in a serial fashion.

But that is just be beginning of the surprise here.

It also turns out that multi-tasking leads to scattered thinking. Not only when we are trying to multi-task, but also later in the day when we are trying to rest or focus on something enjoyable like a good book. I can remember noting with founder friends the mutual feeling that we had lost the ability to read books. Our focus simply was not there. After reading Nass’ work, this makes total sense to me.

Multi-tasking also damages our creativity. The conditions most supportive of creative and imaginary thinking are openness, calm, and even boredom. Trying to do multiple things at once, particularly with screens or devices in front of us, is highly destructive to creative work.

Lastly, Nass found that people who spent large portions of their day multi-tasking had reduced empathy. That one really hit me. And then I thought about evenings during my time as a CEO where I found myself impatient or inattentive to my young son during dinner. After spending the day jumping between tasks and demands, trying to juggle many at once, my brain was often spinning in the evening. I was physically present but not always mentally or emotionally attentive to him. Undoubtedly, my empathy was reduced; empathy requires the ability to see and be present with the other person.

The dangerous myth

I often hear from CEOs who claim to spend most of their days doing multiple things at once.

Their schedules are composed of back-to-back meetings. In those meetings, they often find themselves also answering Slack messages and reading notifications coming through on their phones.

At Sanity Labs, one agreement we always align on with new coaching clients is that our time in-session be fully distraction-free. I know for many of my clients, this is the only time in their week where their attention is not disrupted by notifications.

When I ask startup folks about this way of living and working, there are two beliefs I often hear:

  1. It is unavoidable
  2. I am the exception; I am good at this

Most leaders I speak with believe there is no other way to do their job besides stretching their attention between multiple activities at once.

Most also believe they are good at multi-tasking; others may be bad at it but they are good at it. The data would suggest otherwise!

Turns out if you are human, you are bad at multitasking. (Funny enough, there are a few animals who are actually effective at multitasking. Homo-Sapiens do not make the list. Pigeons do funny enough.)

What is at risk?

At Sanity Labs, we hold that the role of the CEO is as follows:

  1. To hold the vision
  2. To recruit and retain the team necessary for executing that vision
  3. To resource that team with capital, clarity, and care

Now let's hold up the job of a CEO and contrast it against Nass’ findings.

Goodbye creativity

For starters, entrepreneurs are creating something from nothing. The early days especially, as well as future shark-jumping ideas, begin with creativity.

If you insist on multi-tasking to get through the day, you may be trading away one of your most core entrepreneurial assets: your creativity.

Even if your job is not design or product-centric, creativity is also critical in problem-solving, negotiating, and storytelling: three daily tasks for every CEO and founder.

Goodbye clarity

A CEO is accountable to resource her team with clarity. That may include many elements, among them:

  • A clear purpose
  • A clear 10, 5, 3, and 1-year vision
  • Clear objectives for the current quarter
  • Clear values
  • Clear working norms

There are daily problems in any startup that make clarity challenging. The news of the day puts the prioritization of the current quarter into question and suddenly all work risks grinding to a halt.

Leaders must help the team push through such challenges and find a way to maintain and nurture clarity.

That work must begin with creating the conditions for clarity in our own minds; multi-tasking destroys such conditions.

Goodbye empathy

We speak often at Sanity about the importance of ‘care’ in the CEO's job; ‘Resource the team with capital, clarity, and care.’ People facing the immense challenges of scaling an organization will always perform better when they have a CEO who proves her care for their well-being.

In coaching, when we are training leaders to conduct effective one on one meetings, one of the core elements we discuss is curious empathy: creating the time and space to really understand what the person in front of you is going through, good or bad.

A company is built up of a group of humans. Humans have joys, sorrows, fears, motivations, etc. Creating a high-function organization begins with attentiveness to the human experiences of those present.

All of this requires empathy. Something we risk trading away when we fill our days with endless multi-tasking.

Goodbye rest

I have written at length about the importance of rest for highly-effective leaders.

Rest, getting time and space apart from work, helps us to see the full chessboard and play the game more effectively. That’s why to best insights often come when you finally step away.

But that kind of really stepping away, during nights, weekends, or vacations, becomes impossible when our brains are trained to be constantly spinning. Nass suggests in our obsessive multi-tasking we actually change our brain matter for the worse and train our brains to spin continually looking for the next task at hand. Sound familiar?

Lack of rest leads to poor decision-making and overly short-term thinking. Kryptonite for leaders.

So what to do?

If these sound like dangerous tradeoffs to make, particularly given there are no real gains in productivity, fret not. There are some practical ways to make gains in focus and to experiment with a more serial approach to our crazy jobs.

Tools for a radical move toward focus

Here is a menu of options to help you move toward greater focus in your work and that of your team.

Clear goal setting

I have written previously about weekly goal-setting practices for CEOs as well as objective-setting (OKRs) for teams.

One of the most common causes of the feeling of needing to multi-task is simply an over commitment to the number of things we feel we must do.

When we say yes to too many things we de-prioritize that which matters most.

Device-free meetings

I am amazed how many teams conduct meetings with laptops and phones on the table or in people’s hands. In the era of Zoom, this problem has compounded.

Meetings are likely your company’s greatest expense. The time to coordinate, and the time with all of those highly-paid people sitting together; the costs are tremendous.

Meetings should have clear goals, clear agendas, and no devices. If the meeting is on Zoom, you might set clear expectations that team members turn off all notifications, make their Zoom full-screen, and take notes in notebooks, not on their computer.

Meetings are about alignment, creativity, and problem-solving. Devices get in the way.

Re-thought workspace

Whether you are working at the office or out of your home, design your workspace to be distraction-free. Create space that allows you to get into a flow and where you are not surprised or interrupted by outside factors.

Easier said than done for those of us with small children in the home or who live in small New York apartments. But you are better off with less time that is highly focused than working long days with frequent interruptions.

Rigorously eliminate interruptions.

Re-designed computer desktop

You may need your computer to do your work, but your computer is also likely the greater challenge to productive work.

Turn off notifications. Period.

Check Slack on breaks, or at set times in the day. Not on-demand.

Check email at set points in the day, the fewer the better. Not on-demand.

Work in full-screen.

Auto-disappear your Apple dock and your menu. As I write this post, there is nothing on my screen but the words I am writing. My phone is on do-not-disturb. My computer lives on do not disturb.

If you are doing focused work, you might even turn off wifi. Have you ever found you get your best work done on an airplane without wifi? You might aim to create those conditions for yourself at set points in the week where you are aiming to do deep, creative work (whether that is designing an app feature or revising a financial model.)

Life away from the laptop

When you step away from your laptop, allow yourself to step fully away.

Remove email, Slack, and the like from your phone. Unless it is absolutely critical to your role, take it off.

Many of us, myself included, trick ourselves into believing we are so critical to our teams they must be able to reach us at a moment’s notice. That is nearly never the case. And the cost of feeling always on is devastating to our rest and recovery.

Take time away from your phone. When my wife and I go on a date, even with young kids at home, we take only one phone. The result is the removal of that dynamic where one person checks their phone and so the other feels compelled to do the same.

If you have an Apple Watch, take that more often than your phone. It allows you to be reached in an emergency but removes the temptation to doom scroll.

The same courtesy to your team

You leaders out there, invite your team to do the same. Make time away from the laptop part of the working norm.

Make it clear what work is truly urgent (rarely any) and what work is not. Set clear long-term goals but give freedom in short-term management toward those goals.

Talk openly about rest and recovery. Your people are not hammering nails or digging ditches, they are creating solutions around challenging problems. That requires a rested and ready mind, not more hours.

Invite them to remove non-critical company apps from their phone including Slack and email. Tell them you will call them in a pinch; then try never to call them.

Let your people take real vacations. Where they leave their laptop at the office and remove all work-related apps from their phone.

Create clear, explicit working norms that support a non-interruption culture. Examples might include:

  • Slack responses are expected within 3 hours (not 3 minutes)
  • Email responses are expected within 24 hours (use email whenever possible, not Slack)
  • We try never to interrupt at someone’s desk or phone unless it is a true emergency
  • Meeting time is kept to a minimum; focus time is kept to a maximum

Create working norms that allow focus. Train and coach on the dangers of multi-tasking and the benefits of clear goals and focused work.

Conclusion

It is time to make a change. This entire generation of entrepreneurs and workers are suffering under the incorrect expectation that we can effectively do multiple things at once. We cannot.

Dr. Nass, whose work inspired this post, passed away too young. He died at 55 leaving behind a family and assuredly much important work yet to be done. We might honor him by focusing on what matters and letting the rest go.

Life is too short to live and work the way too many of us do. And it simply is not effective.

The change is not easy. But it is possible.

If you are reading this post thinking that this is a change you might make later, that right now things are too hard, there is too much at risk, the company is too close to failing, I hear you. I have been there. I know those anxieties and the 3 AM wake-ups well. I want to reach through this article and give you a huge hug.

But I also know that putting off clarity and focus will actually reduce the chances your company succeeds not increase them.

There is a great saying: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” I love that. What might be even truer is “Slow is smooth, and smooth is effective.”

Wherever you find yourself today, wishing you peace, progress, and connection.

-Matt

Originally posted at mattmunson.me. Subscribe here for regular updates.

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Matt Munson

Matt Munson

CEO coach @ sanitylabs.co. Angel investor. Startup founder. Committed to helping leaders feel less alone in the journey.