The Dirtiest Word In Business – Multitasking

The Dirtiest Word In Business – Multitasking 150 150 Sharon Smith

There is one word in Corporate America that makes my blood boil. It’s not the typical clichés like synergy, think outside the box, right size, paradigm shift, or leverage. It’s a word used in job descriptions as a positive skill and one used as an excuse too many times to count for why someone is not listening during a meeting.

The word is “multitasking”! I hate this word more than any other word in business and in life for that matter. “Multitasking” is what society has decided means it’s OK to stop listening to those you are talking to. When did that become a skill to be proud of?

Keep reading if you feel that you or your team could be more productive, but you are not sure how. Let’s talk about why multitasking is not real, why it’s not an asset to your organization, and then examine what you can do about it so that you and your team are more productive and more effective.

“I’m sorry can you repeat yourself? I was multitasking,” was a phrase I would hear at least 5 times on each call with one particular client. As a consultant I politely said sure and repeated myself while in my head I was screaming, cussing, and thinking, “How rude are you to waste my time and everyone else’s time on this call by making us repeat ourselves because you have more important things to do. Well excuse me for interrupting your day with what I believe is your job.”

That’s an example I’ve experienced on phone calls, but it happens so often in conference rooms too. There is the one person sitting in the conference room with you and your team looking at their phone whether for text or email. They look up when someone says their name for the second time to blank stares of the people waiting for them to answer a question. They of course say, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that? I was multitasking,” and the person repeats the question.

If you are going into a meeting and you are not responsible for keeping the lights on or the network running there is really no reason to have your phone. I’ve heard the excuse, “Well, I have to look at my calendar so I know where my next meeting is.” Great, then look at it between meetings or write it down on a piece of paper like we used to. 99% of the time you don’t need your phone during the meeting. I believe there should be a no phone rule in all meetings and that goes for everyone in the room.

It seems that people have turned to technology for everything, but most business problems are really people problems. That means technology cannot always solve our problems and it is time to put the technology down and step away. It is time to get back to the human connection that built this country and economy. It is time to start communicating and respecting each other again and that cannot be done behind the screen of your phone, tablet, or laptop.

When people say they are multitasking, they are typically talking about doing two things like reading and listening or listening and writing at the same time. They make claims – to themselves and others – like, “Keep talking, I can listen while I type this report,” “I can be present on the conference call while reading the email that just came in,” “I can write this presentation while watching the news.” Can you really do those things simultaneously? The answer is that you cannot and there is a scientific reason why.

The reason you cannot do these things at the same time is because all those activities are being handled by the same part of the brain and your brain cannot do multiple things at the same time that are processed from the same place.

Yes, you can walk and talk, or read and walk on the treadmill, or listen to music and clean the kitchen at the same time. You can use different parts of your brain at the same time for those activities. But you cannot use the same part of your brain for multiple tasks at the same time.

It might feel like you are doing them at the same time, but in reality your brain is switching back and forth between the two tasks. One moment you are writing and the next you are listening and then back and forth. That means you are hearing half of what is being said and slowing down your thoughts around what you are writing or working on. You are most likely increasing your error rate while decreasing your effectiveness and productivity, neither of which are benefits to you or your organization. Don’t forget the fact that you are being rude in the process.

Did you know that on average people look at their phones nine times an hour and 110 times a day? That’s once every six to seven minutes! That is not my definition of productivity. If you stop what you are working on that frequently to look at your phone, how long does it take you to get back on track once you stop looking at your phone? If an employee is working on a project, how much is your company spending on them to check their phone when they could be working on the project, delivering it faster and for a lower cost? How about you? How much is it costing the company when you do the same thing, at your salary?

This is not just about work and meetings; it’s also about life and how we treat our family and friends. Nowadays, it’s commonplace for people to look at phones while at the dinner table; to hold their phone during a conversation indicating that something more important might show up in the form of a text, email, or call; or to read email while chatting on the phone. I am guilty of this, and I am working to do better. The first step is admitting that something needs to change and then observing our patterns so we can change the actions.

Start to take inventory every time you stop to look at your phone. When you think you are multitasking, what is it costing you and your company? What about the conference call that could take 20 minutes that ends up taking 40 minutes because people have to keep repeating themselves? How much focus and money are you actually losing to multitasking?

Every time you catch yourself saying “what?” to someone, check in with yourself to see what happened. Were you truly unable to hear or understand what they said, or were you not paying full attention? Become more self-aware of your own habit around multitasking.
Decide what kind of leader do you want to be and then be that leader. Be the change you want to see in your organization and then lead by example, walk the talk and create an organization of respect where everyone is more productive and more present. Only good things can happen if you chose to take this journey, so will join me in debunking the multi-tasking myth?

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