The Beast of Multitasking

January 16, 2010

The trader nervously tapped his pen on his desk as he viewed three monitors seemingly at once. Driven by his own ambition, he attempted to absorb the thousands of data points coming at him every day, until his mind became so jumbled that he made a vital mistake that cost his client millions.

It is a scene that plays out more often than we care to realize.

People who have a hard time filtering information are often fearful of missing out. Wall Street traders, in particular, are often haunted by the thought of missing the ‘big fish’. They become distracted, bouncing from one realm to the other. The good news is help is on the way in the form of one psychologist who has designed a way to sharpen their focus in eight simple steps.

Sports psychologist and peak performance coach Dr. Doug Hirschhorn works with Wall Street executives to help them improve their performance. In his new book 8 Ways to Great: Peak Performance on the Job and in Your Life, Dr. Doug outlines the eight performance principles he uses to coach today’s front-line performers in the toughest corporate jobs.

“Time is [a trader's] only commodity,” he told me in a Skype interview. “Their number one priority is to make money and to generate substantial profits.” When feeling time-starved, people tend to make rash decisions based on emotion, not information.

Self-awareness is the first step to change, he said. He examines the trader’s personality to see where his or her strengths lie. “I help them slow their thinking process down,” he admitted. While many of them are moving a mile a minute, he helps them identify what they do best, then counsels them to concentrate on only that thing. “If you are an expert in oil, don’t trade corn,” he quipped. The key to success lies in focusing on one thing at a time.

Kill the multitasking beast. But how?

Because we were on video conference mode, he gave me the perfect visual to end the multitasking nightmare so many of us engage in. He grabbed a fistful of pens. “When I toss them into the air, try to catch them.” Obviously, I couldn’t, but I got the picture. Then he suggested I concentrate on only one of the pens. When he does this demonstration during his presentations, inevitably the participant manages to catch the one pen because the person is focused on that one thing.

That’s why multitasking doesn’t work. We try to grab all the pens at once, thereby dropping them all. We are driven by the fear of missing out and then being held accountable when things don’t work out.

“The phrase I can’t is merely avoidance of accountability,” he admitted. People who attempt to multitask are really avoiding accountability. The reasoning is if you concentrate on 100 things at once, it is easier to hide your mistakes.

The power of slow provides us with an opportunity to slow down our thinking to examine our strengths and to play to them as best we can. When we learn to delegate, we free up the time it takes to grab the ‘right pen’~ every time.

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