Multitasking … is it really such a good thing?
In this increasingly busy world, where we seem to be (and often are expected to be) available for interruption and dealing with “something else” all the time, the ability to “multitask” is often seen as an asset. However, is it really the best way to do things? Are we “busier” but ultimately less productive?
A certain level of multitasking comes naturally to some people. It’s a common source of humour that women to it better than men, which may have an evolutionary base (see Allan and Barbara Pease “Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps”) – in our ancient past, women needed to concurrently tend to the house and the plants while watching the children while men needed singularity of focus to hunt and spear food without becoming mastodon lunch. Some personality types (particularly NFs) deal reasonably well with interruptions when they are operating at their mature best (though this is a two-edged sword … NFs are highly prone to “shiny thing syndrome”, and can get easily distracted) – others (particularly SJs) loathe interrputions and distractions and operate best when left alone to finish what they started. Is multitasking really being more productive, or is it just giving superficial attention (and therefore less than our best) to many things, leading to an overall sense of dissatisfaction and potential stress?
One of the hallmarks of good coaching is that for the duration of the coaching session, the client has 100% of the coach’s attention. The coach is fully present in the moment with the clent – and for many people, the mere experience of a conversation with absolutely no other distractions is transformative. No phones, no emails – just complete attention on talking about the matter to hand. For some, it is almost like a completely ‘new’ experience.
I know that when I sit down to write or study that I am significantly more productive if I remove the temptation to multitask – when I shut down the phones, email and extraneous internet pages and devote an alloted period of time to one thing only, I can produce results of much higher quality in much less time – as well as feeling less stressed and less “busy”.
What could you achieve by dedicated sequential tasking, rather than trying to split your attention over many things at once?
Elements of the corporate world seem to be enamoured of the appearance of “busyness” and see multitasking as an essential (or at least desirable) skill. In coaching people on stress and time management, I have heard again and again “EVERYTHING is urgent. I can’t prioritise tasks – I have to do it all, and do it all at once.” This is a patently ridiculous expectation, especially if it is teamed with an expectation of quality. (Ever wonder WHY those laws against simultaneously texting or talking on the phone and driving exist? It’s because when we multitask, we are not giving attention to the things we are supposed to be doing well!) It is just not possible to simultaneously give great customer service (which by definition means actually listening to what they are saying), reply to an email, prepare for a meeting, update a spreadsheet and design a solution. Yes, you look busy. You are ludicrously busy. And NOTHING is getting your best – the skills you were probably hired for in the first place. The expectation of multitasking leads only to a stressed employee who is fast approaching burnout, dissatisfied customers who are quite aware they were not really being listened to, and potential mistakes and rework on important documents and projects because nothing was given the level of attention it really required.
The same applies to our personal lives, and our personal relationships. In the culture of multitasking busyness, how often have you found yourself feeling not terribly important to the person you are talking to, because they are simultaneously doing something else? How much better would that interaction be if both parties turned off the TV, walked away from the computer, and put the mobile phone away for a little while?
If you’re overwhelmed by multitasking busyness – try just one day where you commit to being 100% present in the moment of each thing that you do. Prioritise and task sequentially rather than concurrently, and see the difference that it makes to your productivity, your relationships, and your overall sense of wellbeing.