Plate spinning in a multitasking world - do I ever do anything properly?

November 13th, 2019

In today's fast-paced, tech-driven world, it is too easy for many of us to become very stressed by how many plates we are having to spin. Juggling the myriad demands of children, career and running our own households is putting us increasingly under a lot of strain. Online search results are very revealing on this issue, with terms such as "stress" searched for 3,300 times a month, and "multitasking" seeing 500 hits.

Underlying this sense of drowning under the weight of all the different things we have to do is the deep-rooted idea that we are actually never managing to do a single thing properly. We feel we are never able to give any one thing our full attention.

So, today's life, with its devices and 24/7 work mentality - where, it seems, we are now seen to be somehow failing if we are not always at the end of an email or phone call from our place of work - doesn't exactly help to make us feel calm. Quite the opposite, in fact. So how on earth can we learn to feel less stressed when there is just so much to get done every day?

Don't be fooled by that old chestnut

The old myth that multitasking is something that women are much better at can be very misleading, as it makes women, in particular, feel that learning to be good at multitasking is the way to succeed at life. True, it appears, women are better at multitasking than men. Humans, however, are not designed to multitask. So this issue affects both sexes - equality at last.

By learning to 'just get better' at spinning all the plates, we will feel less stressed and more in control. Right? Not really. What in fact tends to happen when we try to become more skilled at the thing at which we feel we are failing - spinning plates - the more plates will often spin themselves into our midst.

The dangers of multitasking

The trouble with multi-tasking is that it can often lead to us not really caring properly for the person who should be our number one priority - ourselves. Too much multitasking can be a bad thing. It can lead to us being unable to really switch off. And when humans start to not be able to find ways of relaxing, that's when problems can set in. That's when we can end up going off work on long-term stress leave. It's serious stuff.
In addition to all of that, studies have shown that multi-tasking, while it may make a person seem very busy and productive, is not particularly efficient. It can actually reduce efficiency by 40 per cent.

No, the trick to cope with life's increasingly competing demands is to learn to prioritise better. That means, sometimes, being brutal and just saying no.

Covey's matrix

The celebrated American educator Stephen Covey came up with a brilliantly simple, yet remarkably profound system for helping us decide what is important, and what is not, in our busy lives. The matrix is a simple box graph which divides the demands of our day into four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: Urgent, and important Quadrant 2: Not urgent, but important
Quadrant 3: Urgent, but not important Quadrant 4: Not urgent, and not important

Into Quadrant one go things that are absolutely urgent and must be done right now. This would include putting out the fire in your kitchen, attending to a crying baby, or showing up on time to that important board meeting.

A lot of our stress about plate spinning stems from the fact that quadrant one seems never to get any smaller, and in fact can increase throughout the day.

Quadrant two is actually the most important part of the matrix, but it is the one that is often neglected. Into this quadrant go things like "planning for the future", and "strategically thinking about your business". As Covey puts it, this section doesn't demand your attention - it is you who must pay attention to it. Without doing this important thinking and planning work, you will never reduce quadrant one.

Quadrant three is an interesting one, and people who feel they are really being pulled apart in lots of different directions should take particular note here. Quadrant three is about things that are urgent at the time, but ultimately not important. This includes demanding emails that insist you pay attention to them, even though you may be fundamentally unconvinced that doing so will actually benefit you. This quadrant is often made up of things that other people require from us, rather than things we need to do ourselves. We need to spend less time in this quadrant. Be brutal. Learn to say no.

Quadrant four is really just about the things we do to waste time. Note carefully, this is not about our important relaxation hobbies. Whatever we like to do to really relax - walking, reading a book, playing video games (if that's what floats your boat) - is quadrant two stuff. Quadrant four is about things we do that we know we shouldn't really, but just fall back on as an easy time-wasting option to fool us into thinking we are relaxing - surfing the net, gossiping with friends (as opposed to catching up for a proper chat - that's important!) - the list goes on and on. These are vacuous activities, like eating empty sugary foods.

So, there you have it. Learning to spin plates in today's world is really about choosing those plates better. Don't be beholden to other's demands. Of course, often we just have to do what our boss wants - but this isn't about that. It's not about having to be utterly selfish the whole time, failing to compromise or work well in a team. It's about respecting ourselves and being brave enough to turn away from demands that are quite simply all about the other person, not about ourselves, and which have no benefit to you (which is why this doesn't include doing what your boss asks - as that, ultimately, does benefit you!) It's about being mindful and enjoying the moment, when we are with friends and loved ones, and not spending the time catching up with a friend on our mobile device, texting other people, and forever planning the next step in our day rather than focusing on the present.

Live every day in the moment. Focus on the task in hand. That way, true success lies.