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Female Plate Spinners – The Ultimate Multi-taskers?

Article by David Solomon

There has been an ongoing debate for as long as I can remember about whether it is better to multi-task, or better to focus on one thing at a time. There has also been a parallel debate about who are the better multi-taskers – women or men?

Whilst this is a somewhat controversial topic because there is a real danger that my comments could appear to be stereotyping, I’d like to share some observations that might help you draw your own conclusions. So I hope you’ll pardon any generalizations.

My first experience of the concept of multi-tasking was watching a plate spinner on one of the old variety TV shows. I couldn’t fathom how he could have over 20 plates all apparently under his complete control. I held my breath as the plates, in turn, nearly fell to the ground but he was able to rescue them and get them spinning merrily on the top of their poles once more. I now realise that it wasn’t a question of having his hands on every spinning plate all the time, but giving the attention to the plates that needed it as and when required.

I have never seen a female plate spinner – but it did get me thinking about multi-tasking a long time ago.

The current fashion in thinking is that multi-tasking is not such a good thing and should be avoided. The simple reasoning is that focus brings better results. This is hard to argue with as we see examples of that everywhere from sport to business to nature. The specialist will perform better (at a specialist task) than the generalist will every time.

But previously multi-taskers have been lauded as people to emulate. The thinking then was that they achieve so much more because they can work on a number of tasks concurrently. And on the surface that may also appear true, as multiple projects progress concurrently.

I remember once going on a school excursion to the tobacco factory (that wouldn’t happen nowadays). What impressed me most was not the machinery or the scale of operations, but watching one lady speed weigh and pack 1 ounce of pipe tobacco into a tin. She was amazing. And the reason she was so quick was because she was focussing on only 4 tasks – putting a liner in the tin, weighing the correct amount of tobacco, placing it in the tin and putting a lid on the tin. And yet, the tasks were not done in that order. Working both left and right hands independently (like a piano player), she truly multi-tasked the process.

It does appear that women have a greater ability to do multiple tasks concurrently. Whether that be the historical nurturing role in days gone by, or the more modern “looking after the family whilst also working” that many women do today. I tried this for 2 weeks when my wife was overseas and my 3 children were still at school. Suffice to say it was more of a challenge than I expected.

On the other hand, one of my clients (a woman) observed that men appear to have the fascinating ability to become all-consumed by one task at a time. Think of a man you know watching the TV or doing something in the workshop. Is this the “retreat into their cave” that John Gray talks about in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? (The “time-out” to allow distance from the problem at hand so their brains can focus on something else, allowing them to revisit the problem later with a fresh perspective.)

Another theory I heard to explain the difference between men and women is that women think about the world in a subjective manner whilst men think about the world in an objective manner. If you ask a man what he’s thinking and he says, “nothing” he may really be thinking about nothing. This is incomprehensible to women who are thinking about everything.

Research on the brain tells us that the average human being can consciously process between 5 and 9 thoughts at a time (of course the subconscious is unlimited). There is no doubt that some things can be easily done concurrently as they only take up a portion of your conscious mind e.g. making toast and coffee at the same time.

After many years of observation, my conclusion is that we all only do 1 task at a time, and that multi-tasking is a myth. The difference lies is how we switch from task to task!

A university study concluded that a phone interruption could reduce a person’s productivity by up to 20 minutes, taking into account the time required to ramp back up into the state of flow, efficiency or peak performance they were in when first interrupted.

The reason why women appear to be better at multi-tasking is that they can ramp-up their recovery to peak much quicker. In other words, an interruption is momentary and does not have a significant impact on productivity. Men tend to take longer to ramp back up so we don’t have so many examples of men who appear to multi-task well.

So perhaps the solution is to develop individual ways to focus and refocus our attention as we proceed through the day, making sure interruptions don’t derail our progress.

For example, I am quite visual and I surround my work area with images and words that remind me of what is important to me. I also constantly ask myself the question, “What is the best use of my time right now?”

Of course, ultimately it’s about knowing yourself and then working out a solution that works for you.

I work with creative entrepreneurs, enabling them to get their business performing the way it should be, align their people to their vision and values and get a better return without having to work so hard. To learn how I can help you, please go to : http://www.quidditybusiness.com.au










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