A cropped shot of a handsome businessman under strain as colleagues request various things from him

Ugh.  I overheard someone criticizing another person of not being good at “multitasking.”  I was so irritated in hearing this that I almost countered, “Guess what Sherlock, neither are you.”  It’s not that I had any ill-will towards the guy making the comment, it’s just a fallacy to believe our brains are able to sense/absorb, pre-process, decide, control and act on multiple tasks drawing on resources from the same sectors of the brain.  Setting aside involuntary muscles and voluntary muscles controlled by different parts of the brain, when was the last time you could recall flawlessly carrying a conversation while successfully comprehending a chapter of a book you were reading at the same time?

Those of us who claim are “awesome multitaskers” are, in fact, really good at hyper-reprioritizing and hyper-switching.  Sure it may seem like a lot is getting done because there’s a high amount of energy expended to micromanaging every tiny action taken but there’s more time and energy consumed by the process of managing the switching and micro-recalling of multiple indexes of what I call “mental bookmarks.”  Just like when you pick up a book from where you left your bookmark, in order to regain and re-contextualize, you’d have to at least read the sentence or paragraph before to recall and refocus.  Yeah, there’s a lot of “re” going on in all this but it illustrates increased opportunities to make errors due to loss of focus; increased redundancies; loss in momentum; and increased opportunity and switching costs.

One of the biggest challenges we face in the American corporate culture is the ever-so-prevalent question of “how fast,” whereas Japanese corporate culture tends to take an egalitarian approach to challenges, German corporate culture tends to ask “how,” and French corporate culture tends to ask “why.”  Besides the constant push to being innovative and having a virtually even playing field of information as everyone else, since the ascent of the Internet, people must resort to pulling multiple pieces of not-so-popular connections between very disparate pieces of information to create a contextually interesting tapestry of knowledge that’s uniquely their own.  Without really touching upon endogenous drivers, at least the exogenous pressures can explain everyone’s acute and sometimes subconscious sensitivity to cull through mountains of data extremely quickly due to the limited amount of the precious commodity we call time.

It seems wherever I go, this Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) is celebrated and dressed in a euphemism that makes humans sound more machine-like, when, really, it simply isn’t the case.  When I observe people “multitask” over long stretches of time, I can see dissatisfaction from the fact that they “can’t get anything done” and increased frustrations and stress because they don’t know how to really prioritize and push-back a little when needed.  Just like anyone with the gift of the gab where they may be able to “talk a lot but they ain’t sayin’ nothin’,” the same goes for those who have the propensity of not knowing how to prioritize, so they try to do everything at once while accomplishing little.  With all that time and energy spent on switching costs, I can’t help but wonder if such time and energy wouldn’t be better spent at comprehensive planning versus bite-size versions of time management.  At least while exercising the comprehensive approach, the person could still keep the bigger picture in context.

Believe it or not, I’m not all against hyper-switching, as I know it’s needed from time to time, but a consistent modus operandi under the guise of multitasking sounds off alarms in my head, if I can tell the multitasker is blithely unaware of just how much time, energy and cost s/he’s wasting in believing the myth that s/he can multitask.

“Organizations are sacrificing their most valuable asset, namely the imagination and creativity of the brains they employ, by allowing ADT to infest the organization. It’s not that hard to deal with, once you identify it. You need to set limits and preserve time to think. Warren Buffett sits in a little office in the middle of nowhere and spends a lot of his time just thinking. And we are not giving ourselves that opportunity.”

– Dr. Edward Hallowell, The Hallowell Centers