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Brendan P Obrien Superyacht Leader

Former Captain-turned-executive coach, Brendan P O’Brien, discusses one of the main challenges of being a superyacht leader – multitasking.

There are days as a Captain where structure and planning prevail. Then there are those days when, as a superyacht leader, I would feel stretched thin; trying my best to delegate and multitask my way through the work.

We can all recognise these days – those that start off so well and then a simple a knock at the door or a telephone call, a message or email, requires our immediate attention. Some days I would have space for this and on another, I might not.

On those days, if you were to look at my desk, the computer would show numerous tabs open and a handful of half-finished emails stood awaiting my attention. The to-do list in my notepad had probably grown significantly since morning and countless new scribbles reflect some fleeting thought had been made.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

What I’ve come to learn is that this experience is all too common for many leaders, both on land and at sea. An in-depth study into how CEOs spent their waking hours from Harvard Business Review, found that on average, 36% of the leader’s time was spent in this reactive state. Meaning they were having to take care of items as they arose.

You may be asking yourself, ‘Why does that matter to me?’

Well, when we are in a reactive state we tend to try to multitask more. Making mental notes along the way, with the idea that we’ll get back to it shortly.

What we think we are doing is multi-tasking, but the research is saying something very different. A study conducted by the University of Utah, recorded that 70% of participants thought they were above average at multitasking.

Yet many findings have reported the opposite, noting that more than 97% of people are actually task-switching.

Though a superyacht leader, or any leader, may feel like they can multitask, what they are actually doing is task switching. This is where our brain performs a quick switch from doing one task to another and so on, until the tasks are completed. Multitasking, however, is when the brain works on both tasks simultaneously.

Is it just academics being pedantic about the nuance of words?

Unfortunately, it is a lot more than that. Every time we make this switch we experience a cognitive cost. The initial outlay for the switch is simply ENERGY + TIME. Though there is a tariff, one we don’t recognise in the moment, called Attention Residue.  

Let’s look at it this way; when we have flipped the switch to a new task, it does not mean we get a fresh clean sheet of paper. Think of it more as a whiteboard, where you have been working on something. In a fraction of a second, you switch task. In this time, you quickly try to erase the board, making space for your new workings but in your haste, you leave smudges and swirls behind. Now as you scribble on the board with your marker, the felt tip has to cut through the residue to show your new material. 

In time, signs of task switching can be noticed not only in the speed we can move from one task to another but also in how much clarity and attention we can provide the new task. This “residue” tends to have an accumulative effect on us. Noticeable not only at the end of the day but more so by the end of your work week.

Every single time we switch there is a cost. It’s draining. It’s taking longer to do the same thing.

Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley

The last decade has provided a surmounting amount of research showing the negative effects of trying to multitask, and despite the aids that technology has brought us, it has come at a price.

Research is not only showing that it hurts the bottom lines for companies but is showing a correlation between multitasking, mental fatigue, and burnout.  

Here are some of the findings:

There are plenty of ways you can help yourself, and these include creating a schedule that works for you, limiting distractions and delegating. We’ll explore this more in an upcoming webinar!

Are you a multitasking or task-switching superyacht leader?

About the author

Charlotte Flake

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