How multitasking CAN make you more productive

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Q: Rob, Captain, 46:

“I recently read your article on multitasking being a bad thing, and although I normally find your articles spot on, I actually disagreed with you for once on this one. Basically I think my ability to multitask well is a big part of what has made me successful as a Captain. Can you imagine a yacht Captain who couldn’t do it? I actually think that multitasking is so important to new Captains that a lot more effort should be made in training Captains, and all HOD’s (and maybe all crew!) to do it better. What do you think, is this a skill people should learn and should we incorporate multitasking into yachting training?”

A: The Crew Coach:

This is fascinating, as a few people have contacted me to say they didn’t agree with my article on multitasking being a bad thing in yachting. This is a really interesting example of people ‘on the ground’ countering popular theories in the corporate world.

For the record, what I was trying to say (but perhaps not being clear enough about it) was that when we think we’re multitasking, what we’re actually doing is ‘task-switching’, which loses time as our brains take time to warm up to the new task. That bit has been proven by science – it literally does slow our brain down as we have to ‘change gears’ to move into a different mode of thinking.

What I probably should have emphasised is that yacht Captains will ALWAYS have to be able to do this well, no matter what it’s called, and that some people are naturally just much better at this ‘task-switching’ than others. Whatever way we look at it, we definitely can learn to it better.

So how can we train crew to multi-task (or task-switch) better?

I love this question! These are just some of my ideas, but I’d love to hear more from those of you on the job as to on how you’ve learnt to multitask effectively… and how you might train your crew to do it.

The first step is obviously to try and reduce the amount of multitasking you absolutely need to do, such as structuring your time better, managing emails more efficently, and all the other things I mentioned in the first blog.

The second step might be that HOD’s and Captains could learn to multitask better by learning to delegate more effectively. A lot of new Captains and HOD’s burn themselves out completely unnecessarily, thinking that they need to be able to juggle a hundred balls at once and do everything themselves. That’s nonsense- in fact the best Captains are extremely good at opening an email, considering who’d be best to deal with it…and passing it on. Where some people think they’re a poor multi-tasker, what they actually are is a poor delegator!! Therefore, if we can teach senior crew to delegate in the right way to the right people, then their ability to multitask as managers skyrockets.

The third step to more effective multitasking is a mental one. When people feel they are being pulled in too many directions at once (as the original Captain explained), their ability to think and function clearly on each individual task is impaired. All of a sudden they might find themselves making lots of rushed decisions and operating under stress, even though if they’d been asked under normal circumstances they would have had no problem whatsoever carrying out each individual task! So teaching stress management techniques and encouraging people to focus fully on the task at hand rather than allowing all that white noise to muddy our thought processes would be a really good approach.

I’m really keen to hear your thoughts on how to become a better multitasker. Also, keep the feedback coming! I love to have the opportunity to explore the other side of an argument as there are always merits in every idea. Together we can all use each other’s experience to get better at what we do!

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Alison Rentoul

Alison Rentoul

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