The Impossible Goal of Multitasking

Written by lewsauder

April 11, 2011


The Impossible Goal of Multitasking

I have a “no electronics” rule at our dinner table with my kids.  We turn off the TV, we don’t answer the phone and, above all, no cell phones.  Any texts or phone calls they receive from their friends can wait thirty minutes or so while we sit and talk uninterrupted as a family.  We must be some alien form, because whenever one of their friends joins us for dinner and pulls out their cell phone to answer a text, they look at me like I have three heads when I tell them the rule.

Multitasking can be rude

I know it’s a generational thing, but I also text and check scores and Face Book status on my smart phone.  But I’m careful not to do it while someone is talking to me.  Some would call it old fashioned, but I think of it as a sign of respect.  I find it hard to talk to someone while they’re reading emails and have their nose glued to their phone.

It can be problematic at work for a number of reasons.  First, I consider it rude to focus on something else while someone is trying to talk, regardless of whether it’s a phone, computer screen or a piece of paper.  It’s impolite and unprofessional to do it with a client.  When the client speaks, they should receive your undivided attention.  If you are on deadline or have to prepare for an imminent meeting, perhaps there is a polite way to ask if you can defer the conversation, but working while the client speaks is a big consulting no-no.

The inefficiency of multitasking

Beyond being ill-mannered, it’s inefficient.  I’ve seen people type emails while they talk on the phone and sort papers on their desk.  It’s been proven that you can only focus on one thing at a time.  Switching from one thought to another, regardless of how simple the two may be, requires transition time; the more complex the task, the more transition time is required.  Think of a time when you were deep in concentration working on a document when the phone rang.  You needed to stop and answer it and switch gears into the topic of the call.  Then, when your conversation was finished, you needed to switch gears, remember what you were doing, where you were in the document and what you were about to type.  You may not have realized it, but there was time involved in the transfer and ramp up to get back into the zone you were in with the document.

It happens every time you’re interrupted, and every time you interrupt yourself switching back and forth.  Have you ever been on a conference call, and while the conversation of others droned on, you started going through your emails when all of a sudden someone calls your name and says “What do you think of that idea?”

What? Somebody had an idea?

Even if you are half-listening and can jump back into the conversation, you can miss critical pieces of a conversation, and you don’t want the client to give you a wakeup call during a meeting or a conference call.

People fool themselves into thinking they can multi-task.  It’s not an efficient way to work.  The most efficient work habit is to focus on something either until it is done or for a set time before switching to check emails or some other task. Otherwise the 10-20 times you switch back and forth add up to a significant time loss.

See my related post: Put the Phone Down and Listen

Now if I could just get my kids to focus on school as much as they focus on Face book.

Are you a multitasker? Do you feel it is more or less efficient?

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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  1. Are You Really Too Busy? | Consulting 101 - […] See my related post: The Impossible Goal of Multitasking […]

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