Q & A with Jan Jones: Part 9 “Multitasking”
Jan Jones is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness”. The book debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases in the Office Management Category. It has received widespread acclaim from executives and executive assistants worldwide. Jan spent 20 years as an esteemed international executive assistant to well-known business people, including personal development icon and author Tony Robbins. Jan is passionate about the executive assistant role and continues to champion the profession through speaking, mentoring and offering timeless, practical advice that is relevant to the day-to-day role of the executive assistant.
Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series: Part 1–Part 8!
FlyPrivate: We’ve been hearing lately that “multitasking” is a myth and we should stop trying to do too many things at once. But I recall you saying that being good at multitasking was vital to your success as an executive assistant. Can you clarify?
Jan Jones: Yes, and I fully believe that, but I should clarify and make the distinction about “multitasking” as it pertains to the executive assistant, as opposed to executives and others.
We now have scientific evidence that multitasking is impossible for our brains and that, in fact, when we think we are multitasking what’s happening is that our brains are almost instantaneously switching back and forth from one task to another. It happens so fast that we are mistaken into thinking we are doing more than one thing at a time. And this is easy to prove. Try giving your full attention to reading an important document at the same time you are trying to pay complete attention to a phone call you are having. You will soon become aware that both tasks are suffering and you have to stop one of them.
So when I say that being good at multitasking was vital to my success as an EA, I mean that my ability to switch back and forth between tasks, at a remarkably rapid pace, was crucial to my ability to succeed in my job and I’m sure that is the case for many EAs. I’ve observed people trying to “multitask”, and many people are horrible at it. They get confused when trying to do more than one thing at a time. But for me, and outstanding assistants I’ve observed, it’s a piece of cake.
Something else vital for assistants is that there is evidence, as published in Scientific American in April 2010, that the brain can keep tabs on two tasks at once, even though we can’t actually do two tasks at once. I think this ability to keep tabs on two tasks at once is crucial to EAs being successful in their job. I liken it to sleeping with one eye open. You’ve always got your eye on things. Nothing escapes your attention. When all those balls you are juggling are up in the air, you’ve got your eye on them to make sure nothing gets dropped. This is a remarkable talent and one that I think is highly developed in the best EAs.
The world of the EA is one of constant interruptions, and if you support more than one executive, that’s even more applicable to you. But that’s the nature of our job. We don’t have the luxury of taking ourselves off to some quiet corner where we can focus on one thing at a time, as the experts are constantly advising executives to do. We have to operate in the thick of it all day and everyday, so we must get better and better at making our brains rapidly switch back and forth from task to task.
What will increase your effectiveness is your ability to focus. The ability to switch back to the task you were doing originally, and quickly get right back into the thick of it is key. Yes, science has proved you lose time when you multitask because your brain has to switch back into the mode you were in before the interruption. So, learn to make up for those precious lost seconds by recovering quickly and regaining your focus when you have to get back to the task you were working on. Improve your ability to focus quickly. The ability to focus and not give way to needless distractions is a skill assistants must develop, especially in this day and age where smart phones are purposely designed to distract us by keeping us addicted to checking them constantly.
This is not a joke. Some brave souls who work in the technology arena are now speaking up about the way devices are programmed in order to addict us to our devices. We need to be vigilant about this so our devices don’t rule our lives in a negative way, destroying our ability to focus and putting us into overload. I urge EAs to read the 60 Minutes piece on “Brain Hacking” where former Google product manager, Tristan Harris discusses how Silicon Valley exploits neuroscience to keep us addicted to technology. It is a real eye opener.
Multitasking, even as we understand it scientifically today, will continue to be the lifeblood of exceptional executive assistants so I say to assistants, don’t stop multitasking, get really good at it. Develop your ability to focus. It is a life-saving skill for assistants. Practice treating the project you need to focus on as an obsession – as if it is something you really want to do to the exclusion of all else. Once you master this skill, you won’t resent interruptions because your exceptional ability to focus will help you to quickly get back on track.
©Copyright Jan Jones, 2015 “The CEO’s Secret Weapon”
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