Multi-Tasking Isn’t a Thing

I was at a party this weekend and a gentleman complimented me on my multi-tasking skills. His compliment stemmed from the fact that I referred to an obscure fact he’d mentioned several moments ago while presently focused on whether I should help the hosts pass food around. Also from his belief that women are better multi-taskers.

I decided not to spend my personal time challenging this nice person on his well-intended observation. Here are the challenges I would have made if so inclined:

  1. The reason I remembered what he said in our earlier conversation is precisely because I was singularly focused on what he was saying. Just as in our later conversation I was singularly focused on whether to help with the food.  That focus meant all my cognitive abilities were in peak condition for remembering facts and making connections.
  2. There is no such thing as multi-tasking. Our brains can only focus on one thing at a time so what we are really doing when we think we are multi-tasking is rapid task switching. This is cognitively expensive. It’s exhausting and although it feels productive, it makes us stupider.
  3. Women are not better at multi-tasking, but they are conditioned to and possibly more inclined to care about more things at the same time.  I’m not sure we can say anyone is good at multi-tasking but perhaps the larger range of what women are likely to view as needing their attention, gives the impression of being “better multi-taskers.”

The research on the detriment of multi-tasking is quickly becoming well-known. A year ago most of my clients were surprised that what we thought to be a desirable skill is actually damaging our performance and overall ability to focus and move effectively from task to task. Today the response is more often, “I know multi-tasking is bad for me but I don’t know how to stop!”

Stopping is hard because our culture reinforces attending to multiple things at the same time. It wants us to get more done and digest more information.  At work we receive notice of competing needs via email, text, slack/skype, calls, or an actual human encounter. We carry around a device offering infinite possibilities of additional things to focus on: the possibility of our kid calling while meeting with our boss, our boss calling while we’re with our kid, our colleague needing X report while we are working on report Y, our friend Pete texting while we’re with our friend Bob, an infuriating tweet or news notification while our kids are telling a funny joke…the list is infinite.

To make matters worse, even if we want to reduce all the noise and distractions, we are increasingly addicted to them. When we sit down to focus on our one important person or task, our brain starts longing for the ding or bling that will give us permission to look away. To stop the hard work of focusing on this one important thing we want to do well.

How do we overcome this? We fight like hell. The enemy, competition for your focus, is strong and fierce. There are some false beliefs to overcome about how responsive we really need to be. You can re-train people, including your bosses and clients, on what to expect in terms of response time. You can leave your phone in another room. You can disable internet for an hour. You can spend ten minutes with someone and listen to them without thinking about one other thing you have to do that day. You can block time in your calendar to accomplish something and then protect the time to do that one thing as if it’s a meeting with God. And look, I know it feels productive when you zip off three emails while dialing into the meeting. But the world is overcrowded with useless meetings partly because so many of us aren’t really paying attention in them.  Those emails are far more likely to have mistakes or oversights that will then require more emails.  Make the tough choice. Attend the meeting or send the emails. Everything suffers when we split our attention. Do this, then do that. I know these seemingly easy things are not easy and you won’t always be able to do them. I also know that your focused attention is your most valuable commodity. It is your greatest gift to give. The things you want to be good at and the people you care about deserve it. Fight the good fight for you and for them.

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