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Do you play with your e-mail during every meeting?

Feb 21, 2011 Business Daily, Management

“Do you find your mind wandering at times when people address you?
Do you frequently switch from one activity to another?
Do you have difficulty sustaining attention on a task and are you easily distracted by what’s going on around you?
Do you struggle to prioritize and organize activities?
Do you dislike having to do work that requires really intense concentration?”

TONY SCHWARTZ, www.blogs.hbr.org (15 November 2010)

So, how did you do on Tony Schwartz’s 5 tests in the excerpt shown?

If you are a modern executive, you probably did very badly. By common observation, I note that senior Kenyan managers and leaders really have a problem maintaining concentration and focus. This is the problem of the ‘always-on’ world: there is just too much information flying at you, from a variety of gadgets, all day long (and all night too, if you let it).

Senior executives convince themselves that they have to be always available, they have to multitask all the time, they have to be able to handle a range of tasks simultaneously. It’s the seniority, you see – leaders always have a lot to deal with.

Tell it to the birds, people. No matter how much stuff is flying at you, you can still only deal with one thing at a time – if you want to do it properly, that is. Certainly, you can give superficial attention to any number of things together – but you are never going to add real value to anything unless you concentrate on it. Please don’t kid yourself that you have this amazing power to make snap decisions and instant judgements. For anything serious in life, you have to pay attention and think deeply.

Observe senior people in meetings. These days, many managers and directors will be reading emails on their BlackBerries and iPads even during the meeting. How is this considered good etiquette? You would not (I hope) consider answering a telephone call loudly during a board meeting; so why do you think quietly reading your e-mails is acceptable? What you are saying when you do that is the following: this meeting is dull and/or unimportant; I have more important things to deal with than sitting here listening to you people; this stuff you’re discussing is not worthy of my attention.

If the rest of the people in the room want to accept that kind of behaviour, good luck to them. It is just plain rude, however. If you have decided to attend something, then do attend it fully – otherwise be honest and do the other thing that’s more important to you.

Schwartz tells us that the research suggests that when you shift your attention from a primary task to take on another one, say answering an e-mail, you make more mistakes and it takes longer – often twice as long or more – to finish the initial task. So this what multitasking bosses are doing all day long: being less efficient and making more mistakes.

Make no mistake: the higher you go in an organization, the more you have to have the capacity for deep concentration and reflection. Strategic thinking is not done in tweets and buzzes; it requires prolonged absorption of information and quiet contemplation of options. You need to give your undivided attention to the complex issues that face you. Telling yourself that you need to do that while calling mailing, texting and tweeting is a fool’s game.

So ask yourself this: when are the quiet moments in your day, the times when you do not respond to any external communications? If you don’t have such a time allocated, the chances are high that you are merely skimming the waves of your day and never taking a deep dive. It also means that while you play with all your gadgets and messages, the really important things are remaining undone.

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