02/27/2013 01:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Multitasking Madness



From the pilot episode of Ask the Ethics Guy!, created by Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.

Watch it here.

I'll never forget how great I thought it was when I first discovered multitasking on my computer. Suddenly it was possible to switch between tasks seamlessly; with multiple windows, tabs, and programs open simultaneously. I could write articles, check email, do research, and build spreadsheets -- barely pausing between activities. I felt as if I were doing everything at once. It seems like ancient history now, but being able to move quickly and smoothly from one activity to another on a computer was nothing short of a revelation.

But then a funny thing happened: I noticed that the more things I could do with ease on my computer, the harder it was to focus on any one activity. My natural inclination to jump from one thing to another prematurely was now aided and abetted by technology -- the very thing that was supposed to be helping me. Then, after the smartphone became a part of my daily life, I found myself, like millions of others, faced with even more interruptions, and it became increasingly difficult to concentrate. The technological advances that once seemed so liberating had become oppressive.

I came to realize that multitasking isn't something to be proud of. In fact, it's unethically unintelligent, and good managers won't do it themselves and will not require it of those they manage. Here's why:

When you multitask, you're doing a lot of work, but you're not doing most (or any) of it well. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that people who fired off emails while talking on the phone and watching YouTube videos did each activity less well than those who focused on one thing at a time. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!(Ballantine), puts it this way: "Multitasking is shifting focus from one task to another in rapid succession. It gives the illusion that we're simultaneously tasking, but we're really not. It's like playing tennis with three balls." (One can only imagine what Michael Scott of "The Office" would have to say about that!)

It's Not Just Your Smartphone That Can Crash:

We're in the early phases of understanding fully what multitasking involves at the neurophysiological level, but the emerging research suggests that multitasking reduces, rather than enhancing, the quality of both our work and our lives. A multitasker behind a desk is unproductive. A multitasker behind the wheel of a car is a potential killer. A study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that when truck drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times as great as when not texting, according to a report in The New York Times. The Times also reported that University of Utah researchers showed that talking on a cell phone while driving quadruples the rate of crashing, a statistic equal to what happens when people drive drunk.

A bank executive I know frequently complains about how distracted her boss is during staff meetings. The boss --I'll call him Eric-- reads and writes emails and makes calls while briefing the staff. "I'll ask Eric a question about an assignment he's given us," my friend complains, "but he's so immersed in what he's doing that I have to repeat my question a couple of times. It ends up taking me three times as long to communicate with him." Eric isn't a bad person. But he's not a good manager, either.

Since multitasking interferes with the ability to do one's job well, the good manager sets an example by focusing on one task at a time. You can't expect the people you lead to resist the urge to multitask if you can't do so yourself. You've probably been annoyed when a clerk is more interested in his or her phone conversation than in assisting you. Why, then, is it OK to do the same thing when you're working with your team?

Who's in Control?

Yes, I know it's hard to put those devices away, even for a few moments. I'm not sure whether smartphones cause attention problems or simply make those who are susceptible more prone to them. It doesn't help that everywhere we go, we're surrounded by people who are absorbed in their electronic gadgets. What it comes down to is this: Are you controlling the technology, or is the technology controlling you?

An actor I once knew had a catchy slogan on his business card: "Always there. Always ON!" It was a memorable way to let casting directors know of his commitment to his work.It seems as though employers too expect their employees to be "always on", whether on email or on call. But this simply isn't fair. Employees deserve to have time away from work, and managers should respect their down time. This makes sense from a business perspective, also: Employees who can recharge their batteries and don't feel pressured to be "always there, always on" are more likely to do good work when they're on the job.

Technology is morally neutral; it can be put to good or bad use. Managers who want to make the best possible use of technology will take the following guidelines seriously:

Do One Thing at a Time: Focusing on the task at hand is the best way to get the job done. Multitasking may feel effective, but it isn't. "Monotasking" maximizes your own productivity and serves as a positive example to others.

Respect the Personal Lives of Those You Manage: Boundaries are good, and good managers honor them.

Dont Allow Your Team Members To Multitask While Driving: When you're on the phone with someone who tells you she's behind the wheel, ask her to please hang up and get back to you when she's out of harm's way.

Give Yourself a Break: The principle of care applies not just to how you treat others, but how you treat yourself too. You're entitled to watch a movie all the way through or to have a nice meal without looking at your email. And let's face it: There aren't many emails so urgent they can't wait a few hours.

Remember Why They're Called 'Sick Days' and 'Vacations': A person too sick to come to the office is entitled to convalesce without feeling pressured to work at home. This applies to management and labor alike. The same is true for those on vacation. And as for those who have lost a family member or who have just gotten married: If ever there were a time when someone ought to be free from multitasking, surely it's this.

For what it's worth, I'll admit that this post took longer to edit and submit, because I kept checking my e-mail and Facebook page. As Jed Clampett would say, "Pitiful! Just pitiful!"

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This was published originally on Bloomberg Businessweek Online. Order my books 'Ethical Intelligence' and 'Is It Still Cheating If I Don't Get Caught?' from your favorite independent bookseller or here. Watch an excerpt from my keynote speech on ethical intelligence here. Sign up for my free weekly ethics newsletter here.