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Russell Bishop

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Is Multitasking Good For You?

Posted: 03/23/09 09:39 AM ET

People multitask everywhere these days, thinking they are being productive - Blackberrying away while walking down the street, texting while driving, talking on the phone while answering email. Seems like everyone's doing it. The only question: is it part of the solution or part of the problem?

When Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) complained that the President was trying to do too much, President Obama replied that a president must be able to do more than one thing at a time.

Perhaps there's a difference in what President Obama is facing and what the rest of us find on our plates every day. Then again, maybe it's not so different after all. We all have our challenges - they just seem to vary in terms of scope and complexity.

We need to distinguish between multiple goals and multitasking. You and I may have multiple goals: perform well at work (or find a job), manage the kids' education, look after our health, maintain good relationships with our spouse, etc.

The President has all of these on his radar screen as well, both personally and Presidentially. His version of doing well on the job also means finding a few million new jobs; while focusing on his kids' education, he also needs to do something about the plummeting quality of our educational system. You get the idea.

Multiple goals are not the problem; multiple goals and multiple areas of focus can be managed. However, creating successful outcomes in each of these multiple areas requires a kind of focus that will not be found in multitasking.

Multiple Goals vs. Multitasking

When you take on a goal, figure out what you have to deliver in order to succeed, and then determine the steps necessary, you must manage the process one step at a time. That doesn't mean you can't have multiple goals; however, it does mean that when you are working on one area, you better have your focus there if you want to do well.

Have you ever been on one of those "conference calls" with co-workers? You know the ones - people spread around the country or even the world - inevitably someone poses a question to someone else and the other person has no idea what the question is about? Been there? Maybe you were the one who didn't know what was up?

How come? Perhaps you decided the call wasn't that important and so decided to catch up on your email instead. Been there? Even better, ever been on one call and used your cell phone to make a second call? (Mute buttons hide lots of sins).

These days, you can even be in the same room and someone, perhaps most, will be "attending the meeting" while simultaneously answering messages on their Blackberries or leaving the room for a phone call.

What's up with this? Most people call it multitasking. I call it half-tasking. Half their attention is on one goal, and half their attention is on another.

When someone is busy half-tasking, often both tasks wind up being underperformed. In fact, sometimes the most important reasons for being there get missed.

Let's leave the sophomoric retort about walking and chewing gum at the same time on the sidelines here. What I'm talking about is akin to having your neurosurgeon texting while operating.

I remember working with an overwrought EVP of a major corporation, who was obviously distracted during a problem solving session with other members of the executive team. We took a break and I asked what was up.

He said that at breakfast that morning, he was reading the paper, half-watching CNN, and kinda sorta having a conversation with his wife. After a bit, his wife started crying. He offered something lame along the lines of, "It'll be OK, honey. Let's work on this tonight."

The problem? He was so engrossed in his newspaper and thoughts about the day ahead, that he hadn't even heard his wife tell him that the breast biopsy had come back positive!

Clearly, there is a sense of urgency these days, and on a number of fronts. However, anything done at speed risks the inevitable mistake. When someone tries to do two or more things simultaneously, the risk of mistakes rises exponentially. Compound this need for speed with multitasking, and we risk taking our eye off the ball just as it is about to whack us in the head.

If this is making any sense to you, then stay tuned. Next week, I'll examine the challenge of multiple goals and the need to move quickly with some great tips about how to do both.


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You can find out more about Russell Bishop at http://www.lessonsinthekeyoflife.com. Contact Russell at: russell@lessonsinthekeyoflife.com
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The author of Lessons in the Key of Life, Russell is an Educational Psychologist, professional life coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara California.

 
 
 

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