Marketer’s Guide to Productivity: Multitasking and Meetings

Andrea Fryrear on Content Marketing

In the first half of this series, we discussed how email and your morning schedule can sabotage your day and destroy your productivity.

Today we’ll be tackling two of a marketer’s worst enemies: uncontrolled multitasking and meetings.

We’re not advocating that you eliminate meetings and multitasking from your professional life altogether. After all, we’re marketers too; we know that’s practically impossible.

Instead, the goal of this part of the Ultimate Guide to Productivity is to help you effectively manage multitasking and meetings so they are no longer a drain on your ability to get to the stuff that really matters.

Managing Multitasking to Be 40% More Productive

Multitasking sounds glamorous and feels efficient, and with our myriad tasks and varying channels, marketers are prone to split their focus.

This tendency is actually detrimental to our output, as The American Psychological Association reveals:

“even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.” 

In a 40-hour work week, that means multitasking may be costing you 16 hours of productivity every week.

As a marketer myself, I realize that it’s highly unlikely that we can completely cut multitasking out of our days. Instead, consider minimizing your task switching to reap productivity benefits without the need to unplug completely from your workplace.

The High Cost of Marketing Multitasking

A recent AtTask poll showed that 60% of marketers have six or more different applications or tools open on their desktops, meaning they have to switch back and forth between them throughout the day.

It’s easy to see where that 40% productivity loss is draining out of our weeks.

We feel productive if we think we’re answering email, composing a blog post, and chatting with colleagues about our next project, but in fact we’re not doing any of those things to the best of our ability.

Our brains can’t really handle input from this many channels at once; rather than process all the input simultaneously the brain experiences a bottleneck as all the information gets stuck.

In psychological experiments chronic multitaskers “couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” according to Eyal Ophir, one of the authors of a 2009 study on multitasking. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

A co-author of the same study, Professor Clifford Nass, calls these multitaskers “suckers for irrelevancy” who are distracted by everything.

Not exactly the hyper-efficient professional we imagine when we think of ourselves multitasking.

Still, you might need to have your Tweetdeck open consistently so you can make sure there aren’t any irate customers on your Twitter feed. Or sales may need to pull you into chats occasionally. Whatever the specific situation, multitasking isn’t something that’s realistically going away.

Some of Us Are Naturally Inclined to Multitask

Psychologists agree that about 2% of the total population have brains that are naturally wired to multitask. Unfortunately we all think we’re part of that 2%.

The reality is that people who tend to multitask the most are probably the worst at it, but they crave “the stimulation afforded by multiple task engagement” (Source: Who Multi-tasks and why).

Just answering email, just writing a blog post, or just scheduling content for release on social media may not seem as exciting as doing them all at once. But the research is clear: it may seem less challenging, but it’s also less effective.

Some marketers crave the stimulation of constant task hopping, but other possible causes for giving in to multitasking temptation are:

  • Being very reward or gain focused, which causes you to take on multiple tasks simultaneously because of the high potential rewards. These marketers see how much they could improve their output if they were able to complete three vital tasks at once, and that potential drives them to multitask.
  • Simply being unable to focus on single tasks, due to environmental factors or an inherent tendency toward distraction. For marketers in this category, a noisy or hectic work environment may prevent a singular focus. Others may find that although they know the possible risks of not focusing (i.e. not completing any of their tasks), they prefer to take the chance and discount that risk.

If we’re honest, we know if we fall into one of these groups. If you’re a chronic multitasker, take a good hard look at what’s driving you to split your focus, and then see if these tips can help you break out of the habit.

3 Tips to End Multitasking and Improve Productivity

These three small changes will go a long way toward making you a more productive, and less mentally frazzled, marketer. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it can pay big dividends if you can pull it off.

Don’t approach these tips and tools as ways to utterly break out of the multitasking mentality. Instead, think of them as ways to trim the multitasking fat out of your day so you can focus more effectively at key times.

  1. Change your “First Thing in the Morning” routine.

If you sit down at your desk and open email, chat, Tweetdeck, and your calendar, and start flitting between them all while you have breakfast, you’re not giving anything your full attention.

Instead, decide what information you really need before you start your day, and only access that.

Can your email wait until after you’ve accomplished the day’s most vital task? Probably. Don’t open it, or at the very least disable your notifications.

If you need to be available on your company’s internal chat, change your status message to say something like, “Important task in progress. Interrupt for emergencies only.” You may have to train your colleagues a little if they don’t respect these boundaries.

  1. Establish a few key tasks for the day (or week) and attack them one by one.

I have a big running task list I keep in Wunderlist, but each day I sit down and pull the most important ones out into a mini-list on a sticky note. If one is to research a new article, I sit down, turn off my notifications, and research until it’s done.

Then I check my email, turn my chat back on, and decompress a little before moving on to the next thing. I allow myself to be interruptible during these “in between” times, so people can approach me and don’t feel like I’m a misanthrope.

Then it’s on to the next key task, which I try to do on its own without any distractions.

Of course this is an ideal day, and sometimes the phone rings, or my manager drops by, or our CEO needs something ASAP, but when those things happen I try to stop working on the Vital Task and engage with the interruption.

It can seem counterintuitive, but by addressing an interruption with your full attention, instead of trying to maintain partial focus on what you were originally doing, you’ll be able to tackle it faster and get back to your Vital Task.

  1. Eliminate workplace distractions that lead to multitasking.

This can cover a lot of things, from email and chat to co-workers dropping by to the state of your desk. Whatever it means for you, take steps to address it.

Turn off notifications and minimize/close extraneous applications during Vital Task work.

Put up a “Do Not Disturb” notice on your cubicle or work space to discourage idle chit chat. We have a pretty open floor plan, so I have noise cancelling headphones that send a pretty clear signal. They also let me pretend I can’t hear when people try to interrupt me.

If you’re prone to idly examining the papers on your desk, or checking Facebook on your phone when it pings you, clear the space when you’re working on a Vital Task.

Personally I’m very distracted by clutter, and I try to keep my desktop mostly clean. I have coworkers who don’t have this problem, and they thrive in a space full of pictures, bobble heads, and 100 different colored pens.

Experiment with what works for you, and make your situation work for you instead of against you.

For those us accustomed to using six or more applications at a time, this is going to be a challenge. When you’re tempted to start a new task alongside your current one, think of increasing your productivity by 40% and stay strong.

Minimize Meetings with Agendas and Agile Marketing Techniques

“We probably need to have a meeting about that.”

“Let’s just discuss that in our weekly meeting.”

“Put a meeting on my calendar.”

These phrases are heard daily in marketing offices around the world, but adding meetings to our calendars isn’t doing anybody any good.

A recent survey revealed that 24% of marketers blame unproductive meetings for wasting time during their day, and the average employee is in meetings a shocking 31 hours per month.

Culling meetings from your calendar entirely is a tempting prospect, but it’s probably unrealistic.

Instead aim to cut hour-long meetings down to thirty minutes at the most, never go to a meeting without an agenda, and use the agile practice of stand-ups to turn weekly status meetings into efficient, productive moments.

No More Hour-Long Meetings

Most meetings get scheduled for an hour by default, regardless of how long they will actually take. Then they tend to follow Parkinson’s law, which states that tasks will expand to fill the time allotted for them.

To address this tendency, reduce the default time for a meeting from one hour to thirty minutes, and let all attendees know there will be a hard stop (i.e. the meeting must end) at that time.

Make sure there is a clock in the room, and assign someone to be the timekeeper. This person should provide regular reminders of the time remaining to keep a strong sense of urgency driving everyone forward.

It’s possible that some meetings will still require the full hour, but it will quickly become clear which ones aren’t thriving in the new shorter format. Then you can reassign them to their original hour-long slot.

Others, however, will easily complete their goals within the shortened time frame.

If you can shorten just four hour-long meetings per week, that will save you a full 8 hours per month.

Make Agendas and Action Items Prerequisites for Meetings

Most of us wouldn’t consider starting a new marketing strategy without a detailed plan of attack, yet we’ll willingly walk into a meeting with a nebulous goal like “figure out budget.”

A clear, concise agenda should be absolutely required for every meeting you attend. If there’s not one, offer to create it. If you know there will be people there who tend to wander off task, post the agenda on a whiteboard or a screen and refer to it often.

For example, if you’ve got four key items and just an hour budgeted, then make sure you’re not spending more than 15 minutes on each one.

Even if you’re not the one officially running the meeting, everyone will be thankful that it’s being kept in line. Nobody wants to spend all day in a conference room.

Whenever possible end the meeting with a recap of action items and who will be responsible for them.

There’s nothing worse than leaving a meeting with the feeling that nothing will be done about the topic you just discussed. And if you feel that way about every meeting that you go to, your week can quickly feel like a demoralizing, pointless march from conference room to conference room.

Daily Stand-ups Replace All Departmental Status Meetings

The agile practice of daily stand-ups may sound counter to the goal of reducing the time we spend in meetings, but in reality they can replace much longer status meetings and reduce the number of times your team needs to meet every week.

Stand ups have only three topics: what you did yesterday, what you plan to do today, and any blocks that are preventing you from accomplishing your goals.

Each person’s recap should take only a couple of minutes, so even a big department can complete a stand up in less than 20 minutes.

To work most effectively stand ups should:

  • Take place daily, in the same place and time.
  • Start precisely on time, regardless of who is absent.
  • Be run by a leader whose sole job is to keep everyone strictly on topic.
  • Have a cooperative, collaborative mindset rather than a “look at everything I did!” mentality.
  • Have all attendees standing up so there is no temptation to lounge or run long.

Daily stand ups will work best in conjunction with project-driven sprints and other agile marketing tactics. Check out this Guide to Agile Marketing for more details on transitioning to this ridiculously valuable marketing strategy.

How Many Hours Will You Save?

Cutting hour-long meetings in half can shave off 8-10 hours of meetings from your month, and introducing short, super-productive stand ups could completely eliminate another 4 hours.

If you could go from the average of 31 hours of meetings per month to 23 hours at the most, or, dare we even think it, just 19 hours per month, imagine all you could accomplish!

Nineteen hours of meetings per month means less than one hour of every day is spent in meetings.

That’s something worth thinking about. Let’s not put a meeting on the calendar to discuss it.


better marketing day

This was originally inspired by “A Day in the Life of a Marketer” published by AtTask, but we wanted to go beyond the challenges marketers are facing and give them tools to overcome those obstacles.