The Fallacy of Multitasking

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 17, Issue No. 1b
May 15, 2018

By Dan Coughlin


Two weeks ago I gave a full-day seminar at the Washington University Olin Business School. 36 full-time executives from 24 different organizations made up the class. We were discussing one of my favorite topics, focus and sacrifice, when a woman raised her hand and said, “You’re talking about the fallacy of multitasking.”

Right away my ears perked up. I loved the sound of that. I asked her to explain what she meant.

She said, “The fallacy of multitasking is convincing ourselves that we can do two things at the same time. It’s not true. It leads into all kinds of issues.”

I said, “I love that. It sounds like my next article. Thank you.”

This fallacy leads into so many problems. We miss important information, we put our lives in danger, we certainly hurt relationships in all areas of our lives, and we become less productive.

Here are four examples:

On a conference call with multiple people you are checking your emails. Then you start to speak up on the call and people realize that you weren’t paying attention at all. Just a wee bit embarrassing, huh?

Life in danger. Driving and texting. People are ten times more likely to die or be seriously injured when driving and texting than when they are driving and drinking. People are stunned whenever they hear about one of these accidents. Why? Isn’t it obvious that if you’re looking away from the road and your car is moving that something bad is going to happen?

Relationships are damaged. I fell into a bad habit with a great friend of mine. Somehow I convinced myself I could keep doing my work while talking with him. Once he said, “Wow, that is loud.” I said, “What is loud?” He said, “The typing you’re doing while you’re talking to me.” It hit me instantly how rude I was being. I’ve learned to turn away from my computer when I’m talking with him.

Watching a sporting event on tv while trying to write a report is a losing proposition. It will take you four times longer to finish the report and it will be filled with errors. How are you gaining by doing that? You’re less productive, you’re more prone to mistakes, and you haven’t enjoyed either the game or the report.

Please stop fooling yourself. You really truly cannot do two different things simultaneously and do either of them well.

Newton’s Fourth Law should say, “No person can effectively do two different things at the same time.”

Please believe that.

Prioritize what you are going to do today. Then do those tasks one at a time. Focus on the task you’re doing. Don’t do anything else. Then move to the next task and focus on doing that. Give each task you do your full attention. Steadily, task by task, you will achieve more than if you tried to do multiple things at the same time.

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