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Try this one on for size: Multi-tasking isn't the path to greatness
In the early 1900s, time-motion studies showed that manual laborers could boost productivity and reduce fatigue by taking on more than one task at a time. As a result, over the course of the 20th century multitasking gained momentum among academics and professionals. Now, however, the push to do two or 10 things at once has fallen into what economists might call the "law of diminishing returns" phase.
Sander A. Flaum
Business-research firm Basex estimates the American economy loses $650 billion dollars a year to interruptions and recovery time in the workplace. On the issue of recovery time, or lack of it, American swimmer Michael Phelps became an Olympic legend this summer taking eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. His focus for each event was perfectly fixed on improving his time and outmaneuvering the competition. His strategy was simple: Focus on one thing and execute it exquisitely. If that's the secret, where should you place your focus? What's on your things-to-do list right now? There's an opportunity for a new personal best. Will you go for it?
We all have ups and downs. Even Michael Eisner didn't leave Disney honored with a gold watch ceremony; but the mogul's magic was instilled in the metrics. When Eisner took the helm in 1984, Mickey Mouse licensing was keeping the doors open. During Eisner's time at Disney, revenue, stock price, and market value went up over 2,000 percent. Disney's income went from $294 million in 1984 to over $449 billion in 2004. Eisner locked himself onto one goal: to hone Disney into the world leader in family entertainment. And it paid off big-time. Singular focus was Eisner's winning leadership formula.
No doubt, many things vie for attention on your to-do list, but they are not of equal weight, to be sure. A clear understanding of the issues before you is essential to prioritizing your tasks, so spend a bit of time analyzing your to-dos. Some may be urgent, but not terrifically important; leadership is distinguished by tackling the important issues. Put the highest priority challenge on the top of your list, stay extraordinarily focused on it, and execute it perfectly before moving to number two. For example, if there's a key product that is under quota, are you going to focus on a cost-cutting move now No! Concentrate on strategies and tactics for reaching and jumping the revenue curve. Devote your best strategic people to it and put them on a tight time line to get it done. Unclear priorities, unclear roles and responsibilities, worry, and indecision kill productivity.Wrench those bad habits loose, or you'll really lose out. If you find yourself juggling equally urgent issues, divide and conquer. Create a team for each solution, and assign dedicated people who are accountable to a schedule set to solve one problem at a time. The teams should function on parallel tracks, and they should be in communication with each other every day.
Near the top of any leader's to-do list are personnel decisions. Granted, we all make mistakes, and that includes hiring people who aren't right for the job.Terminating an employee who happens to be a good person is one of the toughest tasks there is, but if you put it off when you know the person is in the wrong job and you made a mistake, that hurts the company and it hurts your reputation. Fix it quickly. Legendary CEO Jack Welch, after stepping down from GE, said that in looking back, the biggest mistakes he made had to do with procrastinating about terminating people.
Executing the simple stuff further down on the list is easy; but that won't prevent you from stewing over the big issues. Don't let day after day go by in a blur of answering e-mails and phone calls, mistaking that for effectiveness. Multitasking isn't the path to greatness. It's the path to being below average, expending valuable time on low value priorities. It never ends up with an A+ result, never feels satisfying, never gets the gold.
Do one thing exquisitely well today. The world depends on the ability of leaders to get positive outcomes. To reach the full magnitude of what you can achieve, manage time by applying riveting focus on your key issues and challenges. Every facet of your life can be improved with focus on priorities either personal or workplace. History teaches that's how great leaders get rated—on accomplishing the one or two A+s, not submerging themselves in the 20 Bs. It's the points of excellence that matter.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners and chairman, Fordham Graduate School of Business, Leadership Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org