Today’s (Sunday, 8/30/09) New York Times ran an article titled “The Mediocre Multitasker.” Researches at Stanford’s “Communications Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab” set out to find what makes great multitaskers be able to accomplish so much. To their surprise, they found out that multitaskers are actually very ineffective, and get much less done than those who don’t multitask. “Multitaskers are were just lousy at everything,” said Clifford Nass, one of the study’s investigators. He added, “High multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy.”
As I’ve written many times, one of the key reasons people fail to create relationship-building encounters during business interactions is that they don’t engage fully in their interactions. They look at emails while they talk on the phone. They read text messages the moment the messages arrive, even though they may be in the middle of a conversation with a colleague. While another person is talking, a part of their brain is dedicated to reviewing this week’s soccer carpool schedule.
This research provides tangible support for what I’ve been saying: We don’t actually multitask, we “time slice,” quickly switching between mental tasks. If you insist on typing an email while you talk on the phone, you are compromising your relationship with the person on the phone. Why? Because part of the time you are not actually in the conversation. The other person is there all by himself.
Focusing on one task at a time is really difficult. But it’s necessary, especially if you want to build relationships during your business interactions. Wisconsin Public Radio host (and master interviewer), Ben Merens, has published a wonderful CD called “Unitasking: 25 Tips for Better Listening,” which offers advice on how to focus on the conversation you are in, and not be distracted by the noise of daily life. (There are also tips in Chapter 2 of my book, We, and in my free ebook, Encounters.)
I naturally want to multitask, and avoiding it is very difficult for me; I’m a poster child for the Struggle Against Multitasking. But I have learned the price of multitasking, and the benefits of unitasking. I am always more effective when I don’t multitask, especially when I am in interactions with other people.
Go ahead! Shatter the myth! Believe this: You can’t multitask. You can only do one substantive thing at a time. Now, start practicing.