The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Raise your hand or nod in approval if this is you. In your “relaxing” time you see how many different games you can have going on at the same time on your iPhone, iPad, or Smartphone. Games like Chess, Words with Friends, Scramble, etc etc and often multiple games of each in progress. You also are listening to music and or watching TV as well as trying to interact with your kids, spouse or talking on the phone to a friend. Ah, you tell yourself you’re maximizing your free time and this is how you relax.

Now at work, does this describe the demands on your time and how you manage to fit it all in? You’re on a conf call, while IM’ing with a co-worker about the call, as you read the latest emails that barrage your in-box, while toggling between the latest news sites and trying to keep your texting going with friends or family. It is very true that we have more demands on our daily lives as well as increased entertainment choices in every waking moment. Also, the messages that advertisers send that we can and should “have it all, do everything” in order to lead a truly fulfilled life. This is a fallacy and actually leads, as I’ve experienced, to a less fulfilling and lower quality of life. Oh I how prided myself in my ability to erroneously believe that I was accomplishing more and with better results. What I discovered after many years of trying this was that ALL my work and play time were less than optimal due to trying to multi-task.

First, on the important matters. My time with my family and especially my daughter was compromised. I would try to play online games, watch the football game and interact with my little girl when she was between the ages of 5–12. Kids have an uncanny way of knowing when you’re not fully engaged with them and take many steps to get you engaged. This led to an incredible number of arguments as well as very heated discussions with my daughter. Statements like, “you’re not paying attention daddy”, “can we do something else” and “this is boring (spending time with you)” came from the fountain of youth (and wisdom). Not to mention the negative looks and comments from her mother.

It didn’t really hit me until I wanted to do something with my 13 year daughter and she informs me that at least her friends don’t try to watch TV while they are playing with her and she’d rather go hang out with them. So in trying to watch the latest game of the decade I missed out on some wonderful hours of watching this little girl blossom into the smart and funny and engaging person she has grown to be. She’s 26 now and loves sports which we do share together, but the feelings of lost time with her still haunt me to this day.

On the work front there are times when one must have a “couple of balls in the air” just due to the inherent nature of corporate life these days where you’re expected to get more done faster. However, there is a fallacy that one (me) falls into in that you can do high quality work while “multi-tasking”. The reality is that we can only truly do one thing at a time. Yes, we can have multiple activities going on at what seems to be the same time, but realistically, can you type an email, be listening to what the speaker on a conference call is saying and reading something off the web at the same time? No, we cannot, but yet we try to trick ourselves that we can and in truth we don’t do any of the activities very well. How many times have you been on a call when you have to ask someone to repeat what they asked you? More than I care to admit. Have you re-read the email you were typing while on a conf call? Mine were not very useable and I always had to go back and edit to correct the nonsense that I was spouting about for typically they didn’t make any sense.

Yes, we can usually drive and talk on our cell phones as long as the call is more about hi and let’s meet here or there. Why are states starting to ban driving and talking on our cell phones? Because, they’ve figured out we can’t really do both well, especially the driving part. Perhaps more importantly, we lose out on the texture and joy of life when we busy ourselves with so many distractions and trying to jam in so many activities at the same time. Your favorite music, have you just tried to actually stop everything else, close your eyes and just listen? I was amazed at how much more I enjoyed Sara McLaughlin, Beethoven, The Beatles and many of my other favorites.

The crowning impact for me was when I was playing with my youngest daughter, whose now 31 months (that’s another story about spreading daughters 24 years apart). As I truly focused on her and what and how she was saying whatever she was saying at that time, the raw, uncensored beauty and simplicity and sheer joy that she had at life was amazing to me. I would have missed that if I would have had the TV in the background. Seeing the twinkle in her eyes as she told a joke would have been missed. Noticing the smirk and grin on her face as she was tricking me about something would have been gone.

Guys (for I believe this is mostly a male trait) quit trying to have a contest with yourself or others on how many things you can do at the same time. Focus on the one thing you’re doing, complete it and then move on to the next task/activity. Each moment is to have its focus. I believe you’ll find that you get more done, have less re-work and most importantly fully experience the important moments in your life.

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