I once was asked to evaluate and coach a mid-level insurance company executive I’ll call “Juggler.” Juggler was so busy with so many responsibilities and projects, she was becoming a bottleneck—always working on things, but not finishing them. Her boss and colleagues were starting to complain.
When I appeared at Juggler’s door for our scheduled meeting, she was staring intently at her computer. She hadn’t yet noticed me, but her phone rang. Without looking away from the screen, Juggler answered the call on the speaker: “I’m trying to finish up a calculation and I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes. What’s up?”
I heard the caller say, “Sorry. I thought we had a call scheduled for right now.” Juggler responded, “Shoot. You’re right. I’m double-booked.” By now, Juggler had noticed me and gestured for me to come in and take a seat in her office.
The caller laughed, “Aren’t you always double-booked? We can reschedule.”
Juggler said, “Thanks. Send me an e-mail. Sorry. Talk to you soon.” She disconnected the call and looked up at me.
I said, “Do you need a few minutes?”
Juggler said, “Don’t worry. Things are always like this. I’ve got so much going on. I’m always juggling.”
Once we got the interview going, she was eager to tell me all about that impressive workload. There was a whiteboard on Juggler’s office wall, with a long list of projects and responsibilities. I was thinking, “Ah, those are all the projects on which you are holding up your colleagues.”
“Tell me more about your role on project Q,” I inquired. “Tell me more about project J.” And so on. Juggler had a lot to say about each project, but I still couldn’t tell what she was actually doing.
Finally, I said, “OK. You arrive at work. You have a cup of coffee. Then what do you do—first, second, third?”
Juggler turned the computer screen toward me and showed me a double- and triple-booked schedule, with meetings and conference calls, plus a task manager with overflowing to-do items clearly rolling over from day to day.
I said, “But, which of those to-do items have you actually gotten done today?”
Juggler was at a loss. “I’ve been so busy all day, but I don’t even know what I’ve gotten done. Did you ever have one of those days?” I suspected that was how a lot of her days turned out.
Just then her mobile phone started buzzing, the computer was pinging, and the desk phone was ringing. Juggler said, “Give me just a minute, please, will you?”
One minute turned into another and another. There was something relatively urgent that Juggler needed to deal with, so we wrapped up our meeting and agreed to schedule a follow-up
Why “Juggling” Is Inefficient
It’s not hard to see that Juggler is very busy. But she lacks the focus that would allow her to finish what she starts. Like so many people, Juggler spends way too much time at work awash in a tidal wave of e-mails; fielding interruptions of low importance; fielding interruptions of high importance (firefighting); attending too many mediocre meetings; and in the midst of all that, trying to squeeze in time to somehow focus on completing concrete tasks so she can clear them from her never-ending to-do list.
In a collaboration revolution workplace, where the lines of authority are unclear and priorities become muddled, almost everyone worth their salt will tell you they’re “always juggling.” Often, they say it as if it’s something to be proud of, proof that they are super busy with lots of “very important work.”
And it’s true: Today you do need to work cross-functionally and handle a long and diverse list of responsibilities and projects. But that’s precisely why juggling doesn’t work. The busier you are and the heavier your workload, the less you can afford to be a juggler. Juggling is not a badge of honor. If you are juggling, it’s just a matter of time before you drop some balls. In the end, you can only finish one thing at a time. So you need tools that help you execute one thing at a time. In other words, the goal is not to juggle until you somehow, eventually—almost by chance— complete a task or project. The goal is to finish what you start.
Think about it: “Juggling” is just a concept-and-a-half away from “multitasking.” Multitasking, the wishful idea that a human being can do more than one thing at a time, has been largely debunked over the years by cognitive research. It turns out that what looks like multitasking at its best is actually “task shifting.” The brain can shift, very rapidly, between one focus and another, even among several points of focus. So what’s actually happening is not that the brain is focusing on several things at one time. Rather, it’s simply shifting attention, over and over again, like switching channels—however rapidly—from one thing to the next. Like juggling.
How to Be Efficient At Work
A plethora of studies in brain science (see, for example, the work of Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagner at Stanford University), adding up to a growing body of research, demonstrates that juggling, multitasking, and other forms of “attention shifting” are highly inefficient. Simply, the brain works much faster and more accurately when attention is focused, for a stretch of time, on one thing at a time. The good news is that most people, according to the research, can focus on one thing in increments as long as 30 to 45 minutes (at which point most brains need a little break).
That means you should set yourself up to work in focused increments without interruption—do-not-disturb zones in which you can execute and finish with tangible results, even if they are only chunks of a larger whole, one next step at a time. But most people in the workplace don’t do that. Most are always juggling, even though they think they are multitasking. They think they are doing more, but in truth, they are doing less.
If you want to be indispensable at work, you need to be known for executing one important thing after another very well, very fast, all day long. That means purposefully contributing to the value of those things—be they meetings, e-mails, conversations, research, whatever—by giving them your full, focused attention.