You can’t multi-task

Last month I wrote a newsletter article called “We are not multi-taskers.” We are really only capable of doing one conscious thing at a time, and this tendency to glance at the Blackberry or surf the web while talking with someone ensures that none of those actions will be done well.  My point: One of the key ingredients of a relationhip-building encounter is being 100%, fully engaged in the moment you are sharing with your customer.

I just read this article on multi-tasking from the website of Dr. Joseph Mercola, who I always find interesting.  How about this statistic Dr. Mercola quotes: Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.

One of the greatest challenges to creating relationship-building encounters with customers is actually just being there, fully-engaged with your customer.  Attempting to multi-task doesn’t mean that you are successful doing it.


  • bonnieL
    Oct 12, 2008 - 15:54 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Absolutely agree with your statement, “One of the key ingredients of a relationship-building encounter is being 100%, fully engaged in the moment you are sharing with your customer.” Same goes for friends, family, any human interaction really.

    Learning and entertainment are a different story.
    As any parent of a teen or tween would agree, our generation (sorry 😉 didn’t grow up multi-tasking, so we find it hard to do.

    The Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded by stating, “In this media-heavy world, it is likely that brains that are more adept at media multi-tasking will be passed along and these changes will be naturally selected,” the report states. “After all, information is power, and if one can process more information all at once, perhaps one can be more powerful.”

    What do you think?


    • Steve Yastrow
      Oct 12, 2008 - 22:43 pm

      Thanks Bonnie. Great to see you here!

      I’m with you that full engagement is important for all human interactions. We are not multi-taskers, even though we pretend we are. We are time-slicers.

      The Kaiser Family Foundation study conclusion is really weird. What do they mean that brains more adept at multi-tasking will be passed along through natural selection? From an evolutionary perspective? That would be so naive – they would be implying that media multi-tasking would make people more successful procreators, and this quality would help those so gifted compete for sustenance relative to “regular” people who can’t Tweet while texting and watching Lost. Not how human biology works! I looked it up, and it looks like a very serious study, but I did find this quote on page 24.

      I’ll read the study in a more detailed way … but it will be hard to convince me that time-slicing is actually multi-tasking. I’m also not going to be easily convinced that the younger generation is endowed with superior multi-tasking talents just because they grew up with Playstations, iPods and cell phones. They may have been conditioned to switch back and forth more quickly, but that’s what all of us do: We switch back and forth, we don’t multi-task.

  • Steve Yastrow
    Oct 12, 2008 - 22:54 pm

    Link to the study Bonnie referenced:

  • Todd
    Oct 13, 2008 - 07:59 am

    I recently read a book that offers solutions to help people focus their time and stop living the lie of multitasking. It’s called “The Myth of Multitasking,” by Dave Crenshaw.

    • bonnieL
      Oct 13, 2008 - 09:44 am

      Thanks Dave, I’ll take a look at it.


    • Steve Yastrow
      Oct 13, 2008 - 10:40 am

      Thanks Todd. I will also look at this book.

  • Jeff Pasquale
    Oct 13, 2008 - 10:18 am

    When I speak to groups of managers or salespeople, I ask the question: “Who feels they are a great multi-tasker?” More than half the attendees usually raise their hands.

    Then I tell the story about driving behind an erratic driver on the interstate. When I pass this person, I see that he is on his cell phone.

    “This,” I say, “is what you look like to other people when you are multi-tasking.” Multi-tasking in life, is just like driving and phone-talking on the interstate, you think you’re doing a great job but everybody is going around you shaking their heads.

    I leave them with the advice – Multi-task things; never with people.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Oct 13, 2008 - 10:41 am

      Great point, Jeff. What’s also true is the person on the other end of the phone can also tell that you are trying to multi-task.

  • Richard X. Thripp
    Oct 14, 2008 - 11:37 am

    I totally agree with this; you have to focus just on one task at a time to make much progress. The cost of switching between tasks is high because you lose focus. Back in June, I wrote a post on this called Don’t Multitask.

  • Steve Yastrow
    Oct 14, 2008 - 11:49 am

    Thanks Richard. Loved your post. But I was intrigued that you find it easier to avoid distraction if you don’t have a to-do list. The opposite works for me. If it’s written somewhere I don’t have to think about it. Otherwise, I end up switching tasks so I don’t forget to do something.

    • Richard X. Thripp
      Oct 20, 2008 - 14:04 pm

      Thanks, Steve! It might be because I don’t have a lot of tasks to juggle, but even if I did, I’d be working toward prioritizing and culling them so I could work intuitively (from memory). I do keep a list of topics and ideas for future blog articles, though not a to-do list.

  • bonnieL
    Oct 14, 2008 - 13:37 pm

    Read your post Richard. Thanks. Your photos are great!


    • Richard X. Thripp
      Oct 20, 2008 - 14:09 pm

      Thanks, Bonnie! I’m moving toward portraiture now… people are so interesting.

      But if I tried to multi-task by doing my homework while taking photos, it just wouldn’t work. If you’re going to multi-task, make sure it’s for something important. Talking on your cell phone and eating a sandwich while driving is multi-tasking, but it’s not of a good type, unlike vacuuming the floor while watching the news, or untying your shoes while writing an email, which could be quite productive.

  • Caroline
    Oct 16, 2008 - 11:37 am

    I think that multi-tasking is also a result of an increased lack of respect for human interaction. The goal in a work day is to get things done. I will take half your attention if I can’t have it all. I do not demand the full attention of my co-workers and clients, when perhaps I should. But, this is the way we function.

    I think it is unfortunate sometimes, that we have these excuses (phone, email) to not give an encounter the respect it deserves. It is rude to answer a phone when you are having a face-to-face meeting with someone. Yet, it has become acceptable in many situations. I think rudeness, which I often equate with multi-tasking, really takes its tax on our quality of life.

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