• Michael Hughes

To Kill or Not to Kill

When it makes sense to multi-task and when it should be avoided at all costs



All Multi-Tasking is Not Created Equal

I am often asked about how I manage the chronically illusive 'Work-Life Balance' or alternatively, how I am able to sustain my energy and enthusiasm for my job. First of all, I am not perfect at this by any stretch of the imagination. I have highs and lows just like the next leader, but I have learned some techniques over the years that have helped me balance stress and bring my best self to work more often than not. Given there are only 168 hours in the week for each of us and I have a passion to be a good father & husband, an avid photographer, a mediocre golfer/skier/mountain biker and a CEO.....I have found that to fit it all in, I have to be a smart multi-tasker in order to make the most of every available minute. I will share some of my practices below, but before we go there, it is equally important to understand when multi-tasking can become counter-productive, especially as a leader.


When Not to Multi-Task

In my first plant manager role, a young leader came up to me after one of her first meetings with me and commended me on the fact that I paid attention the entire time to the group discussion. I was taken aback and asked her to explain. She said that in every meeting she had been in since she joined the company, she regularly saw the senior leaders checking their laptops or phones or even walking out of the room to take a call. It honestly blew me away that that was an accepted practice, especially for a leader who is there to serve the people they are coaching.


I have sat in enough meetings to know the frustration that is felt when someone asks for a point to be repeated because they were distracted on their device. This time-waste illustrates a blatant lack of respect for the other participants. I personally would prefer to have shorter, more focused meetings than rambling meetings where everyone is partially engaged. I have since tried to lead by example by not bringing my laptop into meetings. I rarely even bring a notebook....I find I will remember better and pay more attention to what is said, if I devote my full mind to the conversation and don't distract or tempt myself with writing or typing. My fellow participants, with whom I may only get this one face-to-face opportunity in a given month, seem to truly appreciate that I am giving them my undivided attention. I hear excuses from executives sometimes that they need to keep up with e-mail or they will be swamped at the end of the day....I would argue that having more focused meetings will reduce the need for much of the e-mail traffic in the first place.



Two Birds, One Stone

To make the most of your valuable time, strategically think about your myriad of life objectives and intelligently craft ways to overlap two or more of them simultaneously.


Many people are already combining tasks smartly, possibly without realizing they are effectively multi-tasking. If you want to enhance this time saving impact in your life, first you need to pause and write down all of the things you would like to achieve in a typical week. Be judicious about how many hours you can spend on each type of activity (2 hours of television, 3 hours working out, 4 hours on a date night with partner, 10 hours driving back and forth to work etc). When you lay out the hours in front of you, you can then examine activities that can overlap....


Examples of Two Bird Activities from my Busy Life


  • Documentaries & Work Outs: About 4 or 5 nights a week through the colder months of the year, I will work out in our home gym (yes I work out at night, not in the morning) and I will use this time to catch up on all the documentaries I have built up on my "Documentary To Do List"....I really have one of them. This is a great way to learn, be entertained and sweat a little in the process.

  • Sport and Dad Time: I am lucky that both our children are building up a love of several sports. They are still at an age where hanging out with their Dad is cool, so I have taken advantage of that to get them into sports that I enjoy (golf, mountain biking, tennis). Now, when I want 9 holes of stress relief, I bring along one or both of my kids and it is a win-win all around.

  • Reading & Driving: I get through about 25 books in a year and I do it by listening to books (I still call it reading) while driving everywhere, even the 15 minute commute I have to and from the office. I also listen to books in the shower, on airplanes (until I fall asleep) and while mowing the lawn. Leveraging this solitary time to learn new skills or find out about how other companies are run is invaluable to me.

  • Date Nights & Foodie Time: I read a book by the Netflix CEO a few years ago who talked about being uber-disciplined about a once-a-week date night with his wife. We immediately implemented the practice in our home and have never looked back. Having alone time with your partner, not watching a movie, not distracted by kids, can be a great enhancer to the quality of your relationship. Given we both also love trying new food, we typically use our date nights to check out different restaurants in the area and indulge ourselves.


Build the Habit


There are undoubtedly many more ideas than the ones called out above and you can get creative based on your passions in life. I have found that when I neglect spending time doing the things I love, with the people I love, the stress of work can quickly become overbearing. Getting out of work early on a Friday to hit tennis balls with my daughter is a great release of the tensions that accumulated throughout the week. The real trick is to build habits that enforce the discipline required to truly kill the two birds with one stone. Declaring to your spouse or family that every time you watch a show during the week you are going to be on the elliptical is a good way to help drive the accountability. Telling your boss or your co-workers that you are going to do date night every Thursday night and blocking out your calendar from 5pm onwards in another technique. Once the habit forms, it should be an easy one to stick....after all you are fulfilling two of your life passions simultaneously, what more could you ask for!