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multitasking inhibits communication

Multitasking is a Myth

I can’t really do this.

I’ve never been able to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. I always assumed that this was a shortcoming on my part. I have friends who claim to be good multitaskers — attending to multiple projects and sources of information at the same time. I can focus on a task for hours on end but I’ve never been able to do two things at once. I always envied my multitasking friends.

Then last week, I attended a presentation by Bridget Arend, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver. Discussing how the brain works, she dropped an important tidbit: multitasking is a myth. People don’t really do two things at once. Instead, they are speedy serial task switchers. (Let’s call them SSTSers).

The best SSTSers can shift quickly from one target to another and focus intently on whatever target is in front of them at the moment. They focus intently and shift quickly. I think of expert trap shooters who can aim quickly at one clay pigeon, shoot it, and then — just as quickly — re-focus on another clay pigeon. They would never dream of aiming at two pigeons at once — it just doesn’t work. Perhaps we need to forget the old saying that we can kill two birds with one stone. It doesn’t happen. Believing it does only leads us astray.

This has important implications for communications. First, if you want to communicate to me, be sure you have my attention. If you walk into my office when I’m intently focused on my computer, you may not get my attention for a few minutes. It’s often a good idea to suggest that we go out for a cup of coffee — change the scenery, change the context, and allow me to re-focus. As Suellen can attest, I sometimes look straight at her and yet fail to hear anything she says.

Similarly, audiences don’t multitask well. You need a good introduction to grab their attention and get them to re-focus on you rather than whatever they were thinking about before. Some speakers love to show text-heavy slides while continuing to talk at normal presentation speed. They’re assuming that filling two channels — eyes and ears — will increase the impact. Actually, it’s just the opposite — the two channels cancel each other out. Sooner or later, each audience member attends to one channel or the other. Visual learners (a majority of us) tend to look at the slides while relegating you to oblivion.

This is also a good reason not to mention anything even remotely sexual in your speeches. Rest assured that sex is wildly more interesting than anything you’re talking about. If you mention sex, a good chunk of your audience will wander off on that track, never to return to your track. Sex is the ultimate serial task. Even the best SSTSers can’t switch quickly from that track to another. So, now that you’re thinking about sex, it’s time for me to sign off. I’m not going to get your attention back. See you tomorrow.

Strip My Gears and Call Me Shiftless

I used to be proud of my ability to focus. When I was a software executive, I could identify my top priorities for the day and focus on

Geared up?

getting them done. That sometimes meant that I turned off my phone and ignored my e-mail. I had an assistant who could run interference for me. Sometimes, I hid in an office where my colleagues wouldn’t expect to find me. I could focus for several hours at a time — maybe even an entire day — and just get stuff done.

Now that I’m a consultant with multiple clients, I’m constantly shifting from one topic or task to another. I can’t hide from my boss to get stuff down. I am the boss. I can’t very well hide from my clients. If they can’t find me, they don’t pay me. I feel like I randomly shift from one topic to another, from one client to another, from one task to another. Like an old car, I’m worried that the constant shifting will strip my gears.

What to do? Here’s what I’ve figured out. I’d love to hear your suggestions as well.

  • Multi-tasking doesn’t really work — I can’t do multiple things at the same time. I need to tuck myself away and focus on getting one thing done.
  • It doesn’t much matter what you do first — when I need to do multiple tasks, I used to agonize about which one to do first. Which one would make the best use of my time? I could waste a good half hour trying to decide what to do next. Now, I just roll a dice, pick the task and get to work. Just pick one.
  • Just finish one — I try very hard not to let Task B interfere with Task A before I’ve finished Task A. Shutting down a task and re-starting it both take a lot of time. It’s more efficient to just finish something.
  • Don’t check messages mid-task — I like to check my e-mail. I always expect to find something exciting. Rather than checking it randomly, I’ve trained myself to check only after I’ve finished a logical task. It’s my reward.
  • Have a plan, even if you can’t stick to it — I always start the day with a plan of what I want to get done. I may not be able to stick to it, but I always have a mental image of where I am compared to plan.
  • Give myself little rewards — when I complete a task, I give myself a reward. That could be as simple as getting another cup of coffee or taking the dog for a walk (she always makes me happy). Knowing that a reward is coming up give me an extra incentive for finishing something.
  • Say no — I do turn down clients from time to time just because I know I’ll have too much work to do. The first time I turned down a new client, it was very hard on me. Surprisingly, it gets easier.
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