One weekend morning when I was at a coffee place brimming with customers, I observed a staff passing down multiple drink orders to the sole barista who was working behind the counter. As he verbally rattled off around seven or eight different drinks to her, I couldn’t help but empathise with the already-busy barista on how overwhelmed and stressed out she would have felt with this latest deluge of orders.
I quipped my thoughts to my wife who was with me. She said, “Yes, but she will have to ignore the volume and just concentrate on making one cup at a time.”
It was a remark that I thought made plenty of sense, and was something that is equally applicable in the course of our work.
As leaders, it is easy to get caught up in so many different challenges that meet us each day. We need to handle our own tasks, manage others, attend to problems and meet deadlines, sometimes all these coming down on us at the same time.
We end up multi-tasking, switching our attention from one matter to another, and as a result we don’t seem to get anything done well, leaving us frustrated and dissatisfied. We may even freeze, despair or go into meltdown when we stare at the magnitude of it all and realise that the load is simply too much to bear.
Multi-tasking in our work creeps in because we are often unconscious about it. We tend to get distracted from our present task when we receive an email or phone call requiring our attention. And we know what divided attention does to the quality of our output.
What can we do to avoid this from happening and to remain calm and collected in the face of mounting pressure?
According to Greg McKeown in his acclaimed book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, the word “priority” came into the English language in the 1400s, and only existed in singular form. It remained as such until the 1900s, some 500 years later, that its plural form, “priorities”, entered the language.
We don’t seem to make much of terms such as “priorities”, “low-priority” or “medium-priority” these days, but they in fact make no sense. If priority meant something that was of the utmost importance, how could there be multiple things that were the most important at once, or of low/medium-yet-utmost importance?
Hence we need to return to what priority really means, and that refers to the single, most important thing at hand. Leadership speaker Danny Cox offers a piece of advice that may appear all-too obvious but is seldom heeded: Do one thing at one time, and make that one thing your only priority.
That would mean, if you maintain a to-do list of tasks each day, make item number 1 on your list as your “top” priority, the only thing you should be doing at that time because it is most important. Once done, go on to item number 2 on your list, but instead of making it “second” priority, make it your new “top” priority.
Remember the barista. It would be ridiculous for a barista, upon receiving the multiple orders, to then go about brewing a little of each cup, switching from one order to another in random fashion. Instead, you work on the first order from start to finish, get it served, then move on to the second. One cup at a time.