Here's a screenshot from a client's computer. What's wrong with it?
Let's count the windows: 1...2...3...7. We've got three email messages, two Word docs, a spreadsheet, and a Powerpoint presentation open all at once. I'm guessing that had I not announced my arrival, we'd probably have found a game of Solitaire, updates on the ESPN NFL draft, and two different flight reservations for a trip to Aruba, too. And though this client really is pretty good at his job, he still puts his pants on one leg at a time. Which is to say, he can only work on one item at a time.
Interestingly, as we were going through this mess o' windows, he realized that he had forgotten about some of them. One of the email messages was from early in the morning -- he never finished writing the email before getting distracted by something else. And another email he had no idea about at all. He addressed it, but wasn't sure why he was writing to that person.
You've probably read volumes about the inefficiency of multi-tasking. Maybe you didn't believe it. But this screen shot is proof of how difficult it is to perform multiple tasks.
It's so easy to get sucked into the vortex. With so many responsibilities to shoulder and so many damn emails to trudge through, it's tough to tell the world to stop. Those tasks don't just line up and patiently await their turn to bask in the warm glow of your attention -- and neither do their owners. No, they howl and scream for your love -- and when you don't give it to them, you get a phone call or (just what you need) another email, or the initiator of that task drops by your office to find out the status of the new paper clip recycling program.
But opening up all those windows in the hopes of getting all those things done more quickly is a mirage. Your computer is good at running all those program simultaneously. You, unfortunately, are not.
You'll be far better off by establishing the discipline of finishing what you start. Whether it's a spreadsheet or an email, a 30 minute task or a 30 second one, one of the keys to productivity is having the discipline to stay focused on one task and seeing it through to completion.
Working this way will feel wierd. After all, in a world where people actually brag about their multi-tasking, and job descriptions specifically demand "the ability to multi-task in a high-energy environment," you're going to seem downright quaint by shifting to serial-tasking. Your boss may suggest that you wear a bowler hat and carry a walking stick.
But try to get past the fear that your uncompleted work and unfulfilled commitments will metastasize if you don't attend to a certain task for a nanosecond before switching to the next item on your to-do list. They won't.
In fact, you'll actually get more things done if you stay focused. And, not incidentally, you'll do a better job, too.