What Makes Assistants Successful at Multitasking?

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In this article, Author Jan Jones discusses multitasking as it relates to the Executive Assistant position. FlyPrivate is a proud partner and associate of Jan Jones. Jan brings valuable, actionable information to EAs across the globe. We hope you enjoy her blogs as much as we do! 

FlyPrivate: We’ve been hearing that “multitasking” is a myth and we should stop trying to do multiple 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, I did say that and I fully believe that multitasking – as it pertains to the role of the executive assistant – is a fine art that many executive assistants have perfected. But I should make the distinction about what I mean regarding “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 think we are doing more than one thing at a time. This is easy to prove. Try giving your full attention to reading an email 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 doing one of them.

So when I say that being good at multitasking was vital to my success as an EA, it comes down to that ability to switch back and forth between tasks at a remarkably rapid pace, and then quickly regaining laser focus. It takes discipline and practice and is not something everyone can do effectively. But for me, and some assistants I’ve observed, it seems to be less arduous. My opinion is that because of the demands of the EA role, assistants are constantly multitasking and as a result have mastered the ability to switch from task to task very quickly, along with the ability to regain focus. Obviously, some are better at it than others. The key is not to multitask with projects that require 100% of your concentration. That will result in you making mistakes, doing the job poorly and taking longer to do it. It helps to batch similar tasks so that it’s easier to switch back and forth, but realistically, EAs don’t always have that option when requests are piling up, so you end up devising your own system and style of working in order to get it all handled.

I think another part to the talent of multitasking as demonstrated by assistants is revealed in an article published in Scientific American in April 2010. The article says 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 all those balls you are juggling, to make sure nothing gets dropped. Nothing escapes your attention. This is a desirable talent and one that is highly developed in goal-oriented executive assistants.

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. Assistants have to operate in the thick of it all day and everyday, so we must get better and better at recovering our focus as our brains rapidly switch back and forth between tasks. I don’t know of any scientific evidence to back up my assertion, but I know from personal experience that I’m quickly able to adjust back and forth. I’m sure other assistants have this capability as well, and I’d be interested to hear from them about it.

Multitasking can be tiring and one clue to help reduce the stress it causes is to give your brain a re-set if you’ve been doing a lot of multitasking. Take a break, or focus on one task only. I know this sounds like wishful thinking to assistants, particularly with the current Covid lockdown, which is forcing assistants to multitask business and homelife demands. So you must allow your brain even a brief rest. Reduced stress allows your immune system to function better. I was just reading a conversation between a medical working group that includes surgeons and neuroscientists. This comment caught my eye. “Threats fire up the immune system. ‘Threats’ are all sorts of stuff. Viruses, bacteria, a bully, a difficult boss, your thoughts and repressed emotions. Thoughts and emotions are processed in the brain the same way as a physical threat. Anxiety also fires up the immune system.” So, please take a break and calm your nervous system.

Another clue to successful multitasking is to have a priority list. It will help you to meet your objectives. Sometimes, the most important task may require the highest amount of concentration and time for completion. Knowing this, you can quickly knock off a bunch of lesser items that don’t require a lot of time or concentration, and then get down to uninterrupted time with your key projects. With those lesser items completed, you’ve probably satisfied some of your stakeholders, and you won’t be anxious about all those other things you have left to do, while you are trying to focus on the complex, big-ticket items.

It’s true, science has shown you lose time when you multitask. Time is lost as your brain switches back and forth between tasks. (Studies say as much as 40% in some cases). But you can learn to make up for those precious lost seconds by quickly regaining your focus. The ability to focus and not give way to needless distractions is a skill assistants must develop, especially during these times where smart phones and social media platforms are purposely designed to distract us by keeping us addicted to checking them constantly.

This is not a joke. Some brave souls in the technology arena are finally speaking up about the way devices are programmed in order to addict us. 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 overwhelm and overload.

EAs may wish to view the 60 Minutes piece on “Brain Hacking” where former Google product manager, Tristan Harris (also in the Netflix film “The Social Dilemma”) discusses how Silicon Valley exploits neuroscience to keep us addicted to technology. Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker says Facebook is designed to exploit human vulnerability, by creating things like the “like” button, which give users “a little dopamine hit” so they continue to upload content. These revelations are an eye opener and should give pause to every assistant to examine if they are using technology, or if technology is using them. I repeatedly say to assistants that technology is a tool to help you get better at what you do. It can’t be a substitute for the human skills the job requires. In this case the skill is focus which technology is inadequate for, because it constantly distracts your focus and robs you of time. However, don’t overlook that technology may provide a solution if you are able to automate some of those repetitive tasks that slow your productivity.

Multitasking, even as we understand it scientifically today, will continue to be an essential component in the arsenal of exceptional executive assistants. It’s not feasible for assistants to stop multitasking, so get really good at it. Develop your ability to switch back and forth rapidly between tasks and quickly regain your focus. The benefits of learning to focus go far beyond multitasking. It dramatically increases your productivity and the quality of your work. The partnership of focus with multitasking is a paramount skill for time-pressured assistants. Once you master this combined skill, you won’t resent interruptions because your remarkable ability to focus will help you to quickly get back on target again. And this ability is why I say, despite the science, many executive assistants have multitasking down to a fine art.

©The CEO’s Secret Weapon. The ideas expressed in this article and any text extracted from “The CEO’s Secret Weapon” are the, intellectual property and copyrighted to Jan Jones. All rights reserved. No unauthorized usage or duplication by any means is permitted without the express consent of the author.

Author: Jan Jones

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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.

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Visit Amazon to purchase Jan Jones’ book and visit her website: The CEO’s Secret Weapon.

The CEO’s Secret Weapon: How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness

Jan Jones


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