Multitasking is a Myth

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.

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Posted in Customer Encounters, We relationships
17 comments on “Multitasking is a Myth
  1. Michael MacDonald says:

    Glad to read that I, who suffered for years for not being able to successfully multitask, along with countless thousands of others, have been somewhat vindicated by this study. I used to tell folks I just wasnt’ smart enough to multitask and they would have to just let me focus on one thing at at time. I had no idea it was called unitasking and the name somehow lessens the experience.

    Being on the ‘receiving’ side of a multitasker is always a bad experience – nobody can truly concentrate on anything while multitasking.

    Oh, well, now that I’m retired I have all the time in the world to continue to practice doing one thing at a time, and hopefully doing it reasonably well.

    Now, if we can just teach folks that multitasking doesn’t work; common courtesy is actually good; and talking / texting while driving will kill you (and others) we will have accomplished a lot. But, please,let’s not try to do them all at once!

    • Clever.

      A word on driving while talking, though. Driving, like cleaning, running or other familiar physical activity, is actually a function of your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind reacts to the swerving semi before your conscious mind even knows what is happening. That’s why new drivers are so terrible: they haven’t built up the instincts needed to drive without thinking too much about it.

      I posit that it’s okay to talk on the phone or with passengers while driving as long as you are only using your conscious mind for the talking task, leaving your subconscious mind, hands, eyes and other senses free to concentrate on driving.

      Hence, I definitely agree that no one should text while driving. Your eyes can only look one place at a time, and if they never see that swerving semi, your subconscious can’t react to it.

  2. Mike –

    Glad to hear you’re unitasking in retirement. Now I know that your effectiveness as an EVP sales/marketing had as much to do with not multitasking as it had to do with your good looks, unparalleled industry knowledge, sharp wit and magnetic leadership skills.

    Keep reminding the natural multitaskers around you that they aren’t accomplishing as much as they think they are!

    • Michael MacDonald says:

      I try to constantly remind those around me, to my wife’s chagrin, to stop trying to do more than one thing at a time, especially when their multitasking attempts interfere with everyone around them.

      As someone a lot smarter than me said, “Anything that takes two hands to accomplish, also requires one brain” – food for thought for everyone, especially those who time-slice as finely as many try to do.

      Have I become less tolerant in my older age, or just less political? Now I’m going to beat up on local politicians – have a great day!

  3. Steve,

    Excellent article. Again. Supportive research at UofC discussed here

    There seems to be a lot of ‘new’ and converging thinking going on around the whole concept of ‘real’ focus; whether it is in the context of relationships or time management/productivity.

    By the way I love the phrase in the quote “suckers for irrelevancy” What a great title for so many possible pieces ranging from politics to the poison we call ‘reality’ television.

  4. Andy Thorp says:

    Again, I’d refer to the networking experience – when people are asked to stand up and deliver their elevator pitch. If you’re unsure about your pitch, you’ll be thinking about what you’re going to say when it’s your turn to go. That means you’ll pay scant attention to the others who go before you. All the more reason to get used to delivering a great pitch, to leave you free to give others your full attention. After all, you might miss something really useful!

    • I think we’re supposed to “Ditch the Pitch” here Andy 😉 As great as any pitch might be, it won’t be adequate for a personalized interaction.

    • Andy … it’s a great point … if you’re so worried about what you are going to say, you will miss the chance to “be in the groove” of the event. When it’s you’re turn to speak, you’ll, in essence, just be showing up to a meeting that everyone else is already at.

  5. Corrin Howe says:

    I appreciate your thoughts. I wonder about the future of relationships as well, especially when I watch my teenage son and his friends. It makes me crazy to when then answer the phone or text when I’m talking to them. My son I can control a little bit, but not the friends. I know it makes them feel like they have a lot of friends, but do they really? Are all these people going to be there for him in the middle of the night and he’s in trouble? Or is it going to be Mom and Dad, who actually force him to relate to us for a few minutes without the TV, phone, computer and/or video games?

    • Corrin – Sometimes I fear that the behavior we’ve modeled for our kids is that it is ok to be disengaged and just skim over the surface of things. Pretty scary. Thanks for the insight.

  6. Andy Thorp says:

    Your comment about engaging with kids reminds me of something about the so-called Generation Y (don’t think that’s Y-astrow!). Those born since the mid-80’s have grown up in an environment saturated with information and multiple forms of entertainment. Some commentators say they tend to thin-slice things, going in skin deep and hopping from topic to topic. With only 4 TV channels to choose from years ago, I could immerse myself in a programme but with 200 at my fingertips now I’m always thinking about what I’m missing elsewhere.

    I had a client today bemoan the fact that he met people at networking events but they didn’t respond to his follow-up call. I suggested he’d not really gone deep enough with that initial encounter to make that new person feel a meeting was worthwhile. I asked him to be more in the moment with that first meeting, rather than wondering what the next person might bring.

    I sometimes think my kids get bored because they’ve too much to do! Too much choice and thin-slicing perhaps?

  7. Dan Gunter says:

    I once did a demonstration with a group that is in this same line of thought.

    Using five volunteers from the workshop participants, I had one person be the “multitasker” and the other four serve as “tasks.” The “tasks” lined up in a row in front of Mrs. Multitasker. On the count of three, I had all four “tasks” say their middle name out loud. I then pointed to each task, one at a time, and asked Mrs. Multitasker to tell me the person’s middle name. She did not get one right.

    I stated the point of the lesson as this: if you can’t even pick up on a single word or name from multiple sources simultaneously — just ONE name from each — how can you expect yourself to truly focus on and perform well on multiple complex, involved tasks simultaneously. I got at least a half-dozen emails over the next couple of weeks from people who said they had taken the lesson to heart, started handling things in more “serial” fashion (what a mutual friend of ours once called “serial monogamy”) and they were actually feeling MORE productive and getting better results. Not to mention their stress levels had dropped (by their own accounts.)

    Why do you think I have not been blogging or spending any time catching up on other folks’ blogs lately? I’ve been focused on taking care of my clients and giving them my fullest attention. It’s working. August was a record month for East Alabama Media.

  8. Dan – what an excellent example! Great story.


  9. Tom McCallum says:


    Just checked in on your blog as catching up on “must read” blogs for the first time in two weeks (oops).. and the thought “great minds think alike” jumped to mind (or..”fools seldom differ”…history can judge!).

    Why ? my latest blog was on the same topic 🙂 !

    Next blog ? I guess revisiting the “golden mean” as it relates to striking a balance between “unitasking” and “multi-tasking”

    See you soon in Cayman !

  10. Tom – Enjoyed your post! Great confluence of thinking!

    Here is Tom’s post:

  11. I don’t know If I said it already but …Cool site, love the info. I do a lot of research online on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..


  12. Shellie says:

    I am a major multi tasker, and I am a professional multitasker since that’s what all of my jobs have required of me to do. I was always one ot the top employees and Multitasking is actually in your mind, being able to have self discipline enough to mentally map all the tasks that are to be achieved and how the most efficient and fast way to complete them all by prioritizing them in accordance with the amount of time available and what short cuts are available to save time and physical effort to finish all tasks. Yes, you do each task individually but while thinking of the next few steps long before you get to them, is what true multitasking is. It is being able to mentally focus on future tasks while doing the one task that is priority to ensure the most efficiency. I can hardly mono task, yet I was the most efficient employee who got the best scores from customers and also had the best speed of service and was able to accomplish all tasks fully. The trick to multitasking is it takes a bit longer to get a routine down than mono task people. It basically loses the immidiate goals for the sake of a far more efficient end goal in the future. Multitaskers also run base line tests while perfecting their routines which mono taskers do not understand or appreciate because they cannot grasp more than one task at a time and fail to grasp the larger picture that is the end goal.

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