When You Shouldn’t Multitask

jugglingAt any given point in their tour, a sufficiently established JO will normally have a solid backlog of looming deadlines—it comes with the territory. We learn early on that getting things done requires organization, foresight, and aggressive multitasking. This is a critical skill in almost any line of supervisory work, and its necessity never goes away. In any organization, the most productive people are invariably great multitaskers.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to let multitasking get out of control. Sometimes you just have to say to yourself, Stop. This is what is going on, and then devote one hundred percent of your mental effort to the task at hand. Here, I’ll address two common situations deserving of your full attention:

1) When you have the watch, and anything is going on.

At sea, this is pretty obvious: you shouldn’t be juggling when one of the beanbags is seven thousand tons of heavily-armed steel. Depending on how your CO runs things there may be exceptions for especially quiet, contact-free transit watches, but even then I wouldn’t advise it. There are plenty of constructive ways to pass the time by engaging with your guys. If your nose is buried in some spreadsheet or message you’re working on, you’re blowing an opportunity to develop trust and competence within your watch team. More importantly, there’s no way you’ll pick up on the cues that could prevent something like this.

In port, there’s obviously more leeway since you will normally have the watch for 24 hours. The key here is that if “stuff” is going on, you should be engaged—that doesn’t mean you need to be in the vicinity of every job that is in progress, but you do need to be plugged in to the ship. Walk around. Chat with the topside watch. Explore something. Don’t get sucked into some Microsoft product—it’s a never-ending abyss, and is not why you are here.

It wasn’t until late in my tour that I came around to this way of thinking. I was always proud of my productivity, and I felt like I had scored one for the good guys when I could knock out some side task while I should have been fully focused on the ship. What ultimately made me change my mind was my stress level. I learned that if I just resolved from the moment I took the watch that I wasn’t going to get any divisional or collateral work done, my stress went way down. I stood a more effective and rewarding watch, and was less wiped out at the end of it.

2) When a sailor comes to you with a problem.

Stop. This is what is going on

When someone’s talking to you, be present. Listen with sincere interest, and make eye contact with the sailor, not your laptop. These are individuals with dignity, and are not a distraction from your job, but the purpose of it. If they have come to you with a personal issue, it is especially important that you stop what you’re doing and give them your full attention.

This is not to say that you must always drop everything to focus on Seaman Timmy’s student loan problems… just that 99.99% of the time, that’s exactly what you should do. Whatever it is, it is absolutely more important than the training schedule or whatever. Relative to the majority of things that consume your productive hours, personnel issues are emergencies.

You’re the face of the Navy to your sailors. When one comes to you with a problem, it is your opportunity to prove that we are not a vast, uncaring machine that grinds sailors up into Soylent Green. Even if there is nothing that you can do, don’t ever say that— there is always something that you can do.

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2 thoughts on “When You Shouldn’t Multitask

  1. Spot on, especially with personnel issues. I personally turn the ringer on my phone off and turn away from the computer to face the person, as I easily get distracted when email comes in or the phone rings. How would YOU feel if you were spilling your feelings on some issue to your boss and he was cranking out an email? The few minutes of “lost” productivity will be made up in the future when Seaman Timmy’s problem got solved correctly the first time.

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