I'm not a big fan of multi-tasking, if only because it points out what crazy, busy lives we lead. So I paused when I read the November obituary of Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, who conducted groundbreaking work on the brain-ravaging effects of multi-tasking.
In a 2009 study, Nass found that multi-taskers aren't the efficient, high-functioning folks they – and we -- think they are. "It turns out multi-taskers are terrible at every aspect of multi-tasking," he said in an interview with PBS' Frontline. "They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another."
And they're also terrible at recognizing that they're terrible multi-taskers. "One would think that if people were bad at multi-tasking, they would stop,” said Nass. “However, when we talk with the multi-taskers, they seem to think they’re great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more. [Yet] they’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”
I'm sorry I never had a chance to interview Nass, but I'm glad I was able to dig into his research to get some ideas about how to dig ourselves out of our multi-tasking mania. It turns out there’s a very simple fix: Focus on one thing at a time. Easier said than done? “By doing less,” Nass found, “you might accomplish more.”
I did it. I went to a cocktail party where I didn’t know anyone, and successfully chit-chatted for two hours. (Not to myself. I actually spoke with other people.)
I have never been good at the kind of networking where you’re supposed to walk into a room full of strangers and walk out with “connections.” The very idea makes me cringe. But as a writer and reporter, I get invited to more than my fair share of meet-and-greets. Every now and then, I read an invite and think, “Eeek. I really should go. But I won’t know anyone.” Sometimes I go, sometimes I don’t. Some of these events are better than others. They are rarely fun.
But now I’m actually looking forward to them. It’s as if all these networking receptions are part of a big game, and I finally figured out how to play. Here’s how I learned.
Last month, as I was heading to a work-related cocktail hour with some colleagues, I groaned that I hated having to introduce myself to a room full of strangers. Even though my co-workers were coming with me to this particular event, the whole point was for us to talk to people we hadn’t met.
Then one of my colleagues told me the trick he uses: When he walks into a room alone, he looks for pairs of people who are talking, and introduces himself to each person in the pair.
I thought you were supposed to approach people who were by themselves. If two people are talking already, why would you interrupt them?
Because everyone else is there to meet other people, too, he explained. So if you see a pair of people, the chances are that they arrived together and know they should be mingling. Or else they’ve just met and are, in the back of their minds, worried that they’re going to end up talking to this one person all night. (One of these people may be trying to get out of the conversation; you’ve just made it easier for them to exit.) Either way, they’re relieved to see you. And your chances of having a decent conversation are better, because now you’re talking to two people, not just one.
Consider the alternatives: Approaching one person makes it harder to eventually extricate yourself. And if you can find absolutely nothing in common with that one person, you’re sort of stuck, at least for a while. Plus, it’s becoming more awkward to go up to just one person, because self-conscious people who don’t have anyone to talk to will increasingly stare into their phones and give off the “I’m so busy” vibe -- even if they want to mingle. Breaking into a knot of four or more people is really hard, at least for me.
So twos are the best bet, and after that, threes.
Here’s the bizarre thing. It works. It really, really works. The next time I walked into a totally intimidating cocktail party, I had met only one person there before. Since she was with the company that was hosting the event, I knew she wouldn’t have time to talk to me. I took a deep breath, got a glass of wine, and looked for groups of two. I probably had a dozen conversations that night, some more comfortable than others. About half the people I spoke with offered me their card, which, in the age of LinkedIn, is becoming more rare. Then I went home, flopped on my bed, and thought, “I can’t believe that worked.” Game on. -- Kimberly Weisul
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At a recent business dinner, I was seated next to a woman who had founded a venture-backed startup. Her company was about four years old, and had raised tens of millions of dollars.
I’m an editor-at-large for Inc and Inc.com. At Inc, we write about entrepreneurs — and burnout. So I asked her, “We always hear that being an entrepreneur is a 24/7 endeavor. But you’ve been doing this for years, and no one can work all the time without burning out. What do you do to stay sane?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s funny. You just find a way to keep going.”
At some point, I thought, everyone needs a break. Even people who claim they only need four hours’ sleep each night generally take big naps during the day. So I tried again. “Look,” I said. “If you ask me, I’ll tell you I work all the time. But the truth is it’s very hard to get me on the phone or on email between 5:30 and 8:30 on a weeknight. That’s when I see my kids. I’m back online by 9:00, but I don’t literally work all the time.”
When Sheryl Sandberg released her feminist manifesto Lean In earlier this year, Kristin van Ogtrop was compelled to offer a different suggestion to other well-educated working mothers with big jobs: Forget about leaning in or leaning back. Stand up straight and take the time to enjoy life, family, relationships -- and the occasional clementine.
“My days in the office are busy, and when they are over, I don't want to go to networking dinners or think about finding a mentor,” van Ogtrop, managing editor of Real Simple magazine, said in a widely-read essay published in April on The Huffington Post. “I want to go home and have a meal with my family and laugh my head off over some dumb YouTube video my husband found that day. Maybe that means I'm not really ambitious. But if I had to choose between ambition and fun -- well, that's an easy one…I take great pleasure in my professional success, but I can tell you with certainty that, when I'm lying on my deathbed, I'm not going to be thinking about career wins.”
Five months after sharing her thoughts, van Ogtrop, 49, and the mother of three, said she was surprised how much her essay resonated with women. One Thing New’s Connie Guglielmo asked her to share more of her thinking about Lean In, about being a working professional with a family, and about what life has taught her.
I was the world’s worst waitress.
I was slow. I was too shy to chat up customers for a better tip. And most damning of all, I was clumsy. I learned this the hard way as a 15-year old attempting to master my first job at a diner in my hometown in West Virginia. I remember my panic as I carried a tray heaped with three gravy-filled dinners and felt my foot skate across the gray linoleum. In slo-mo nightmare, each juicy platter piled into the lap of one poor schmo, a high-school senior dressed in his best suit for an afternoon wedding. And I most definitely remember his stormy face as he yelled, “I know who you are, and I’m going to tell your brother on you.” To my surprise, he did. And yet the experience as a waitress wasn’t a total disaster. Even as a shallow teenager, I learned that life can be more fulfilling if I take an interest in the people around me.
I was inspired to reflect on past jobs after reading a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle that highlighted Silicon Valley’s rampant (even rabid) culture of age discrimination among tech workers. The main thrust of the article: That the region’s employers only want to hire people in their twenties, and see zero value in people born before 1983. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg summed up Silicon Valley’s long-held perspective on age in 2007, when he told a group on entrepreneurs, “Young people are just smarter.”
I was struck by the profound stupidity of that sentiment, since it completely ignores the fact that we are all the sum of our experiences. Like everyone else I know, I’m smarter and wiser because of the jobs I’ve held.