It’s an all too familiar office phenomenon. Check the computer screen of any employee and three or four work windows will be open. Besides, there’s the instant messenger popping up ever so often, the constant ping of an email auto notification, and the mobile phone ringing constantly.

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In the 24x7 wired workplace, the truth is that there are more people working in the bits-and-pieces style of Sivaraman’s teenage daughter than doing one task at a time. After all, it’s common for most of us to be working on more than one project simultaneously.

Rajeev Karwal, founder and CEO, Milagrow Business Solutions, a Delhi-based consulting company, describes constant demand for multitasking at work rather dramatically: “At one point in time, you are soaring in the sky doing blue ocean strategies, and suddenly, you are called upon to dive down into the sea to catch the little fish—very like Jonathan Livingston Seagull (in the book by Richard Bach)," he says, admitting that it can be very distracting.

Multitasking can have serious side effects too. Several studies have published damning evidence that it impairs productivity, leads to attention deficit, builds up pressure, stresses one out, and even lowers one’s intelligence quotient (IQ). A 2005 study on workplace behaviour in IT companies by Gloria Mark, professor in the department of informatics, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, US, showed that it took 25 minutes for a worker to regain focus on an interrupted task. Business coach Dave Crenshaw, author of the 2008 book The Myth of Multitasking, goes as far as to say “doing it all gets nothing done".

How, then, does one get all those diverse things done in an actual workplace, where tasks won’t line up neatly and wait for your attention?

It’s all about prioritizing

On the surface, many successful executives may appear to be doing a lot of things together, but talk to them and there is always a disciplined method to the madness.

To cope with multiple tasks at work, Karwal swears by his “HML rule" (high, medium, low), one that he makes every member of his 30-strong staff follow. The idea is to identify high, medium and low priority tasks, and work on the high priority first. “Prioritization, planning based on deadline, marking milestones on my calendar, desk planning on a daily basis are ways in which I deal with juggling several tasks," he says. Desk planning, Karwal explains, is about identifying tasks that have high impact and yet are irritating to complete. He puts these tasks up in a visual form on his desk as reminders to avoid the tendency to postpone them.

When confronted by many tasks, Karwal finds it helps to write down why he feels flustered. “By writing it down and making a conscious effort to work on it, I slowly take away the reasons that make me flustered," he says.

Zoning out

Brand strategy specialist Harish Bijoor, CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., Bangalore, says that in the administrative domain of managing his four offices, he multitasks, but when it comes to the creative, strategic part of his work, he prefers to work in a distraction-free environment. “Here, I need to concentrate singularly on the work at hand. I need to network within my mind and think a lot. In such tasks, I shut everything out. I typically lock myself in and use a lovely ‘Do not disturb’ board on my cabin door."

During such tasks, he prefers to shut out all distractions (not just other tasks), including all outside noises, and even opts for total darkness in the room sometimes. “I have thick, black blinds in my office. Sometimes one thinks best in the dark. In such ideation-mode work, I go off the digital in terms of computers and mobiles. Instead, I go into the voice-record mode with a Dictaphone and the voice-record function of my mobile. It is very, very useful," says Bijoor.

Employing gatekeepers

“You cannot do everything yourself. I surround myself with good people, who keep people or small tasks at bay when I have to concentrate," says Kushagra Katariya, CEO and chief cardiothoracic surgeon, Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon.

But even if you don’t have that luxury, there is no reason technology cannot help out. Bijoor says: “The gatekeepers are both physical and digital. My mobile phones have a voice message on them and calls are on a divert mode to one of my associates."

Several software, tools and applications are available to keep the screen free of distractions. For Mac and iPhone users, for instance, there is WriteRoom, a full-screen writing environment that lets you focus on writing without distractions.

From Microsoft to IBM, IT companies are now engaged in creating what they call “attention user interfaces" to minimize on-screen interruptions. These range from answering services for instant messaging to programmes that help you prioritize emails.

Avoiding interruptions

A 2008 study by Basex, a New York research firm, found that office distractions ate up 2.1 hours a day for the average worker. The total loss of productivity in a year worked out to $28 billion (around Rs1.28 trillion now) in the US.

Modern open offices are great for team-building, but as work interrupters they are a minefield, as every word spoken by colleagues can be heard and there is the constant jangle of phones ringing.

Punkaj Shankar, global head, human resources, of Infogain Corporations, the Silicon Valley, California-headquartered business consulting and professional services firm, says that at their development centre in the National Capital Region (NCR), the space is planned in such a way that distractions are kept to a minimum. There are no individual phones at the workstation, only one handset at every cluster. There are huddle rooms so that a team breaking for a meeting does not disturb others.

“To reduce distractions for team members, who are expected to do work that involves a high intensity of concentration, we have policies in place. Other than banning all social networking and blogging and message boards, we also follow unwritten rules like avoiding jarring ringtones, and silencing the phones during meetings," says Senthil Kumar, vice-president and senior partner of Barry Wehmiller International Resources, a US-headquartered IT services firm with India offices in Chennai and Mumbai.

Finally, switching off

As Samir Parikh, chief psychiatrist, Max Healthcare, Delhi, points out, what causes stress while multitasking is that each task itself has several levels, multiple vectors in the form of different contacts, people to deal with. While he acknowledges that prioritizing and delegating are both good ways to cope, he feels that the most important thing is to learn when to switch off.

Karwal agrees with this. He highlights the Milagrow policy, which states that no employee will be disturbed on a Sunday. For himself, he ensures that he shuts off all communication links at 11.30pm daily. At 6.30am, refreshed, he switches on again to start a new day.

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