The Multitasking Myth

Dear, Anita,

I’m so stressed out!  I’m being pulled in a hundred different directions at work. My office is full of interruptions – from putting out proverbial fires to phone calls from customers to coworkers stopping by to discuss projects. All the while budget reports are due, shipments must go out on time, and meetings must be attended. I’m trying to keep on top of it all but I never feel like my “to do” list gets done. Help!

Dear, Juggling Jim,

Multitasking is bragged about, and often expected in our modern American business culture. But what people who multitask are really doing is shifting from one duty to another, seemingly lightning fast – in effect, juggling.

Three researchers – Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans, and David Meyer – conducted experiments where participants switched between different tasks. You may not be surprised that the test subjects lost time when flip-flopping from one task to another. As tasks grew more complex, even more time was sacrificed.  It is estimated that shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your productive time (American Psychological Association). Take this eye-opening test from the author of The Myth of Multitasking to see just how much toggling between activities can cost time-wise:

The three consequences of multitasking, according to author Dave Crenshaw:

  1. Things take longer.
  2. Mistakes increase.
  3. Stress levels increase.

A University of California, Irvine study of information employees found workers are interrupted every three minutes – that’s about 20 times an hour!  The same study discovered it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back on task after being interrupted. (The good news: 82% of interrupted work is resumed on the same day but a Microsoft study showed that 40% of the time, the disrupted task was not resumed immediately following the interruption.)

And what about accuracy? When UC Irvine’s subjects were given a cognitive test, the interrupted group answered correctly 20% less often than the control group that was not deliberately sidetracked. Trains of thought can be derailed by sudden stops and starts.

MultitaskingI don’t think we need a scientific study to come to the conclusion that multitasking increases stress levels. But science does show that the pre-frontal cortex of our brains (the area most involved in multitasking – assessing, prioritizing, and allotting mental resources) is affected by prolonged stress. The hippocampus (the region of the brain that forms new memories and recalls existing ones) can also be damaged by stress, making it difficult to learn new skills and facts.  Stress hormones can also reduce short-term memory – definitely not good when you’re trying to remember what you were doing before you were interrupted!

What’s the solution? I find it very interesting that the only antonym for multitask on Thesaurus.com is “focus.”  While you may be able to drink your cup of coffee while reading email, for more complex tasks – that quarterly report or client presentation – try to schedule some uninterrupted time to complete intricate projects. You may have to close the office door, and even hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign. But you may be your own worst enemy – a self-interrupter. You don’t have to answer every email the moment you hear it ping in your inbox, or hop on the web to research airfares for your next conference the second it pops in your head. Here are five ways to tame multitasking:

1)      Schedule uninterrupted time for big projects.
2)      Turn off your email alert and check email at scheduled intervals.
3)      Keep your personal cell phone off, and check messages/texts only at lunch or breaks. Try using the Do Not Disturb button on your phone, and return calls at scheduled intervals.
4)      Train your coworkers not to interrupt.  You may need to remove comfy chairs from your office so people don’t linger to chitchat.
5)      Replace your open-door policy to open-door hours instead.

With a few changes in your work habits, juggling can be left to professional performers in the circus.

 

Applying for a Job When Not 100% Qualified

I’ll answer two related questions together:

Dear Anita, I found an ad for a position at my dream company. My skills and responsibilities during my years of experience match up almost exactly to what they are looking for. However, I don’t have a college degree, and they list a Bachelor’s Degree as a requirement. Should I still apply? – Almost  Qualified 

Anita, After months of being out of work, I’m desperate to get a job, so I’m applying to just about every job posting I can find in my town. Obviously, this takes a lot of time. But after being picky and only applying to those few that I qualify for 100% with little to show for it, I have to do something different! My wife thinks I’m spinning my wheels. Can you settle our disagreement?
– Trying the Shotgun Approach 

Dear, Almost Qualified and Shotgun Approach,

TargetWhen a manager needs someone to fill a position, they make out a wish list of their pie-in-the-sky candidate’s qualifications, and post this ad. Are they going to get everything on that list? Did you get everything you asked Santa for? Probably not.

My personal feeling is that if you meet 80% of the criteria (Pareto’s 80/20 rule comes in handy for a lot of situations), then Almost Qualified, go ahead and apply away. Even if there is an applicant meeting 10 out of 10 requirements, and you rank a close second with 9 out of 10 qualifications, chances are good that you’ll still get an interview. The other job seeker isn’t necessarily a shoo-in for the job, either. They may interview poorly or have a less sparkling personality than you. There are all kinds of intangible, je ne sais quois qualities that come into play when a hiring manager is making that final decision.

Shotgun, if you’re just throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks, I feel like you’re wasting 80% of your time, as well as that of hiring managers in your community. And you wonder why employers use Application Tracking Systems (ATS) and don’t respond. See my recent post ATS 101 for a better understanding of the computer program that will toss your unqualified app in the trash. Just to be fair, here’s a blog from Youtern that is PRO-quantity. My advice, however, is to go back to your more targeted approach and have multiple résumés that focus on and spotlight different aspects of your experience and skill set. For example, you may have done a little bit of purchasing in a previous manager position and now want to apply for a procurement coordinator position. Adapt your résumé to focus on the particular abilities and facets of your past experience that make you a viable candidate for the new position.

Shotgun, you may wish to consider a temporary agency like my friends at The Select Family of Staffing Companies. You’ll be able to work on various assignments based on your skills. Who knows, you may even fall into a temp-to-hire situation.

Readers: Readers, have you ever applied – and landed – a job for which you did not have each and every qualification the company requested in the ad?

Have a question you would like to ask? Visit http://anitaclew.com/ask-anita/.

Office Decorating

Dear, Anita,

Our company is moving our offices from our cramped location to a spacious new building. I guess because I am one of the few women in the office, somehow I am now in charge of decorating the new space. I have to pick carpet, paint colors, furniture – and I’m no decorator! The only direction I’ve received from my boss is to choose a color scheme that is relaxing since we are in a high-stress business. Do you have any advice?

Dear, De Facto Designer,

Take a deep breath… but not near the paint fumes! We spend approximately 40 hours a week – sometimes more – in our work environment. Office surroundings can influence our business’s image and our employees’ productivity.

blue modern office spaceColor
As a general rule, cool tones – blues and greens – are more calming. Blue and gray have the benefit of improving productivity… but I don’t advocate a drab prison palette. (Interesting side note: In the 1970s, it was discovered that pink reduced aggression, so a few correctional facilities experimented with rosy walls!) While financial services companies and law offices tend to keep their palettes more conservative and neutral – beige,  tan, taupe, cream – creative industries can get away with adding bigger splashes of brighter hues.  Hot colors – red, orange, bright yellow – are more stimulating, but beware of overdoing any strong color. Your company’s logo and branding should also play into the office color scheme. To explore more about the psychology of color, check out the Demesne site.  To read about NASA’s color research on color in office environments, check out this interesting link: http://www.informedesign.org/_news/jan_v05r-p.pdf. And keep in mind, the way a color looks on a chip in the hardware store could change dramatically in your office light.

Lighting
Proper lighting to perform tasks is essential to any office.  Fluorescent lights can be harsh; have you ever noticed that unbecoming green cast to your skin in a phosphorescent fitting room? You may not have much choice, as overhead fluorescent lighting is still widespread in office buildings, so adjust your make-up accordingly. Augment overhead lights with task lighting – adjustable desk lamps positioned behind or pointed away from computers to avoid screen glare.  Natural light is highly valued by employees, but be sure to position your computer to avoid reflections from windows. Stuck in the cubicle farm? Consider a full spectrum sunlight desk lamp so you won’t get SAD.

BlindsWindow Treatments
Desks positioned by east, south, or west facing windows may heat up for a portion of the day. Shutters are an elegant but pricey option to control light, hide unsightly views of the neighbor’s dumpster, or maintain privacy. Horizontal blinds, cellular shades, or solar roller shade options are available in every budget range. Vertical blinds are best suited for taller windows and sliding doors.

Furnishings
Form follows function when it comes to office furniture. The type of computers, number of monitors, and amount of file storage may dictate your desk selection. Clutter may lead to stress, so be sure that employees have enough storage space for their needs. Keep ergonomic issues in mind when arranging offices and cubicles.

Light deskGenerally, the darker the wood, the more visual “weight” the furniture has. Massive mahogany desks quietly announce importance and professionalism, while light maple with stainless steel may indicate a more modern, youthful vibe.

Carpet
While hardwood floors are sought after in our homes, carpet is king in offices, primarily because of the sound absorption benefit. I like to keep the carpet a multi-toned neutral – it helps hide dirt! You can always bring in color on accent walls and with artwork.  Be sure to select a commercial grade stain-resistant option. Carpet tiles may cost more up front, but you can replace one or two damaged or stained tiles rather than an entire office, saving money in the long run.

Extras
Think beyond motivational posters when choosing art for the walls. Perhaps someone in your company is a great artist, or knows one. A plant or greenery can be a nice addition… as long as someone remembers to water it. If you go the route of a faux plant, be sure to keep it dusted. My dream office would have a calming aquarium, but who would feed the fish on the weekends?

Readers: What would you change about your office decor?

 

Creating a Résumé from Scratch

Dear, Anita,

Recent graduate here. I have filled out job applications in the past but I’ve never had to create a résumé before, and I don’t know where to start. It seems intimidating. Can you point me in the right direction?

Dear, Résumé Newbie,

Person Holding ResumeAccording to Dictionary.com, a résumé is a brief written account of personal, educational, and professional qualifications and experience… prepared by an applicant for a job. With your recent school report-writing experience, this should be a snap. Think you don’t have enough to fill a page? C’mon, I’m sure you learned to stretch your thoughts to get to the word requirement for all those English essays.

I think Dictionary.com has the order backwards, though. If you have had any work experience at all, lead with that, followed by your education, with personal details at the bottom.

For your employment history, list the company name, date range of employment, and your job duties and responsibilities. Include summer jobs, babysitting gigs, stints as camp counselor, unpaid internships and yes, working in a family business even if paid only with your room and board.

What to do if you have absolutely zero employment history and are looking for your very first job? Beef up the education areas and mention classes that relate to your desired field (include grades, if they are stellar), outline any projects or reports that may be relevant, as well as any useful skills that you picked up along the way.  In fact, if you are particularly tech-savvy, break out “Computer Skills” as a subhead and list the programs in which you are well-versed.

Woman holding resume for a job interviewYou can bulk up a beginner’s résumé with personal information, such as skills, clubs, interests, awards, and community service. See my “Including Volunteer Work in Your Resume” post for more tips along these lines.

Another section to consider adding is References. “References upon request” is often seen on the bottom of jam-packed résumés, but for those without a “grip” of employment history, including the name and contact information for past teachers, bosses, church elders, or family friends who will give a glowing testimonial about your character is worth the space.

As for the format, keep it simple. Tempting as it may be to pimp out your résumé with a graphics program, many companies and job search sites such as Monster.com may require you to submit your résumé as a Word document. Word has dozens of résumé templates that you may download to give you a clean, professional look.

If you find you are not having success landing interviews, consider a professional résumé writing service such as CareerPerfect that can polish your rhinestone in the rough.

Readers: Readers, remember your first résumé? Did you learn anything about résumé-writing that can help our recent graduate?

Have a question you would like to ask? Visit http://anitaclew.com/ask-anita/.

Make Team-Building a Picnic

Dear, Anita,

After years of coming up with team-building activities for our company’s annual summer picnic, I’m brain-dead. Do you have any new, creative ideas?

Dear, Rah-Rah-Rachel,

Tired of trust falls, huh? This video from Outrageous Games includes the traditional sack race and water balloon toss, but has a few unique twists on company picnic favorites.  I particularly like the different interpretation of a “soapbox derby” and the race with participants wearing swim fins.

Here’s a twist on the three-legged race – a team-building caterpillar game (although this video is uploaded from the Netherlands, it doesn’t really need a translated explanation):

Spend a little time browsing for ideas on YouTube, but be forewarned – you’ll likely run across some LOL moments, so you may want to close your office door.

Perhaps a theme could jump-start your creativity. I could “arrr-gue” for a pirate motif (even though International Talk Like a Pirate Day isn’t officially until September).  Think of all the activities you could do with a rope at a western-themed picnic.  With a carnival concept, adapt traditional fair games into team trials. Or bring your three-ring circus out of your office; you’ll need to find a venue or event company to facilitate employees getting out of their comfort zone by walking a tightrope or swinging on a trapeze.  Businesspeople playing tug of war outdoors.Wacky staff Olympic Games can promote teamwork with events like pool-noodle javelins, Nerf archery, tricycle races on the grass, or creating a landlubbing synchronized “swimming” routine (remember to bring a video camera!). If you host the summer games on a beach, there is an added level of difficulty slogging through the sand.

I’m a fan of the TV show The Amazing Race. You could create a team scavenger hunt in your city with silly “pit stop” and “road block” challenges along the way. BONUS: You can get your company name out in the community when you cooperate with local businesses to hide items or host challenges at their locations. Survivor is another show that can be adapted if you flip the objective to keeping teams together rather than voting someone off the island. Maybe winners of the “immunity challenges” could receive a break from an onerous task back at the office next week.

Send me an invitation, will you?

Readers: Tell us about the most convivial activity at one of your company picnics.

Have a question you would like to ask? Visit http://anitaclew.com/ask-anita/.

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Disclaimer

Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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