The Multitasking Myth

The women in my life—my wife and daughter—sometimes go to great lengths to convince me that they are better at multitasking than men. I usually agree. That is, when they have my attention. The thing is this, when I’m concentrating on something I usually give it 100% of my attention and block interruptions.


That’s when I’m most effective. When I’m focused. And when I’m in the present.

The Multitasking Myth

In contrast, some people seem to rush from one activity to another. They never take a break, they eat on the move, and use the phone during meetings. They think they do more because they attempt two or more unrelated activities at the same time.

But are they effective? Is multitasking beneficial? Can you truly accomplish more multitasking?

Of course they’re not! How can they be? Their attention is split between tasks. This is the multitasking myth.

I see this almost every day in meetings. People pretend to be interested in the agenda when their concentration is elsewhere. They use a smart phone or laptop to read email. Their focus is on the discussion or the email. Not both. Not effectively.

Stay Focused

When we attempt to do more than one thing at a time our focus is diminished. Kevin Stirtz explains

Think of focus as a ray of sunshine through a magnifying glass. On a sunny summer day it’s easy to burn a piece of paper with a magnifying glass if you hold it close enough. By focusing the light on a tiny area, you intensify the amount of energy applied to the paper. This increases the heat and can cause the paper to smoulder if you hold it there long enough.

If you pull the magnifying glass away, the focal point spreads out. It becomes less intense. It never produces enough heat to burn the paper because the light is spread too thin.

When we focus on one task instead of many, our energy is just like the sunlight passing through the magnifying glass. It intensifies and has a greater effect on whatever we’re doing.

So why do people think multitasking is acceptable? Perhaps people have too much to do and too little time. Or they’re not well organised. Maybe their interests lie outside the organisation: a new relationship; domestic challenges; a new business venture.

If you find yourself struggling to give activities your full attention or you’re overwhelmed by your work you need to review your workload. Set priorities, plan objectives and deal with them one at a time. If you’re being stretched too thin then it’s likely that your lack of focus is the result of an unsustainable pace. In this case renegotiate your workload.

This is the multitasking myth: believing that multi-tasking makes you more efficient. Staying focused on the person or activity before you will always yield better results. And if you’re in any doubt this post has absolutely nothing to do with gender.

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Have Your Say

Do you believe the multitasking myth? Or do you find people’s lack of engagement frustrating? Please join the discussion.

Creative Commons image courtesy Dave Gough.

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Comments

  1. Alan says

    Re multitasking.

    I agree. Perhaps a good example of multitasking is the reported rise in car accidents (some of them fatal) in Australia that have been caused by people using their mobile phones (talking, texting, emailing, etc) while driving. It is also now being suggested that car GPS systems could be contributing to car accidents.

    Multitasking definitely does not work in situations requiring hand/eye coordination and split-second decision-making. The women who I work with pride themselves in their “ability” to multitask, however, this is not reflected in their work performance and the quality and volume of their work. As a male in a female- dominated work environment I am often mocked for the apparent male inability to multitask.

    The irony here is that the same people often ask me how I manage to achieve a high volume of quality work. The simple answer is that I am able to “switch off” and give complete focus to the work in hand. Other factors, such as setting myself achievable work goals, helps to keep me “on track” in a sometimes distracting work environment.
    Regards
    Alan

    • says

      Hello Alan, Thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s appreciated. I also think you example is a good one. People are not good at doing more than one thing at a time. And the multitasking myth applies to both genders. As ever, Martin.

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