My Most Costly Multitasking Mistake … Almost!

Like Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster, Multitasking is a Myth

I just landed at O’Hare airport in Chicago. After getting off the airplane, I did three things. I ordered an Uber, read my email, and checked my text messages.

Flipping back to Uber to see how soon my driver would arrive, a dialogue box popped up asking for my name, address, and phone number. “I guess I need to re-authenticate my credentials,” I thought to myself and proceeded to provide the information. Then another dialogue box asked for my employment history, annual salary, and Social Security number.

“What the $#%&,” I exclaimed. “This is crazy! What kind of insanity is going on at Uber?”

Then I realized the insanity was mine.

In the midst of doing three or four things at once, I had unwittingly begun to apply for an Uber credit card. Yikes! Exiting out immediately, I discovered I’d walked to the wrong waiting area and had to rush to a completely different terminal to catch my ride.

The Myth of Multitasking

The myth of multitasking, like Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster, is that it actually exists.

It does not.

It’s not possible for the human brain to simultaneously process two activities at the same time. What we call multitasking is not multitasking at all but task switching with a side of neurological tomfoolery.

“When we think we are multitasking, our brains are actually moving from one thing to the next, and our performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix. Multitasking gives us a neurological high, so we think we are doing better and better when actually we are doing worse and worse,” writes MIT professor Sherry Turkle in Reclaiming Conversation.

There’s real data on just how much performance degrades for each new task we add to the mix. A research study conducted by the American Psychological Association discovered that multitasking decreases a person’s ability to complete a job by 40%, almost doubling the amount of time it takes. Additionally, task switchers’ IQs drop by fifteen points, comparable to the effects of smoking marijuana.

Would you smoke marijuana at work? I didn’t think so.

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This is how in 2017 the wrong winner was announced for best picture at the Oscars—La La Land—and how 1.6 million automobile accidents occur every year as a result of texting while driving. And this is how I came to apply for a credit card while I was reading my email, checking my text messages, and walking to the shared ride zone at O’Hare airport.

What’s the answer to this vexing problem? Here are three multitasking solutions:

Multitasking Solution One: Focus

The first solution to multitasking is uni-tasking. Uni-tasking is disciplining yourself to do one thing at a time and one thing only. The reason why this requires discipline is because the brain rewards task switching with a hit of dopamine. This chemical high feels good, but, like any drug, its false sense of euphoria fails us.

Doing only one thing at a time means turning off your phone, disabling your notifications, and focusing like a laser on the task, or the person, before you. It’s being fully present in the moment and being completely aware of the needs of the moment.

Let me warn you, however, your first attempts at this will falter. You’ll find yourself grabbing for a WMD—wireless mobile device—to get a dopamine hit within a matter of minutes. But I assure you, after a few weeks, that addiction will wear off, and you’ll be able to think again in a focused, concentrated manner.

And that’s a competitive advantage. Who spends time thinking any more? With everyone in the world running around like chickens with their heads cut off, a leader who can think, think deeply, and think strategically will win. Make sure that leader is you.

Multitasking Solution Two: Batch

What do you do, then, with all that email and all those text messages you get throughout the day? You can’t just let them go. Can you? Maybe some of them you can (see Multitasking Solution Three), but most of them you have to attend to. Batching is how you do that.

When they have to make a bunch of outbound calls, sales managers instruct their salespeople to carve out a block of time and do them all at once, rather than making one or two calls every hour or so. A designated block of time allows salespeople to do this work without interruption, and grouping calls together gets them into a rhythm that generates mental and emotional momentum.

That’s batching: grouping common tasks together in a protected period of time to accelerate their completion. And that’s what you do with all the email and text messages you get throughout the day.

Instead of a constant stream of digital interruptions, I have three batching sessions in my work days where I process texts and email. At first, these time blocks went on forever, but now they’re quick and efficient (and surprisingly, much more professional). As a result, I have a freedom and joy at work that’s absolutely priceless.

Multitasking Solution Three: Prune

“I have yet to see an executive, regardless of rank or station, who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody noticing their disappearance,” Peter Drucker famously wrote in The Effective Executive.

What Drucker declared over five decades ago is still true today (except for the wastepaper basket thing). The question, of course, is which 25%? That’s why I’ve used the imagery of pruning for this third multitasking solution.

Why do grape growers prune their vines? So the vines produce more fruit. It’s as simple as that. Instead of having the energy of the plant being used for big beautiful leaves and long flowing branches, they want the energy of the plant being used for growing grapes. That’s how grape growers make their living.

Here’s the workplace parallel. Your energy can be diverted in a typical day to dozens of things that deliver no real business outcomes—big beautiful leaves and long flowing branches, total wastes of time. Ask yourself, what activities contribute directly to achieving your goals? What are the most important things of the most important things? What are your highest priorities? Define these. Do these. Obsess over these and let everything else go.

Multitasking, then, becomes unnecessary because you’ll only be doing that which is essential: producing fruit.

Whether you’ve applied for a credit card while reading email, checking text messages, and rushing to catch an Uber, or done something even more costly while multitasking, the point of this article is this: Stop it!

In its place, start becoming a uni-tasker—doing one thing at a time and one thing only—batching your digital communication and getting rid of the things you shouldn’t be doing at all. The end result will be greater productivity, both professionally and personally, and that will make you a better leader and a much more present person.


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