Career coach: Move beyond the multi-tasking badge

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, January 31, 2011

Last week I wrote a column about effective listening. A number of people told me about one of their pet peeves -- that one of the reasons people are such bad listeners is that often they are multi-tasking and consequently doing a poor job of listening.

It seems that no matter whom you are talking to or looking at, the person is often doing several things at once. Most people will tell you that they feel they are forced to multi-task in order to accomplish everything they need to do. Moreover, they believe they are really good at multi-tasking. It's like a badge of honor: "I am a great multi-tasker!" -- a skill to be admired or developed. Interesting, it seems that no one has a problem multi-tasking when he is the one doing it, but everyone gets annoyed when others do it while they are interacting with him.

Are we really capable of multi-tasking?

Dave Crenshaw, author of "The Myth of Multitasking," says that it should be called switchtasking because if you really examined what you are doing you would see that people are just rapidly switching from one task to another. He says we really are not very good at it and it can have some consequences, actually hurting our productivity because of the time lost making even fast switches. Further, he says that sometimes, we are forced to retrace our steps or redo something. For example, one of your employees comes into the office and talks to you while you are sending an important e-mail and you accidentally send the message without checking it over first.

John Medina, author of "Brain Rules," also points out that the brain cannot multi-task when we are doing things that require our attention or effort. He argues that we take 50 percent longer to accomplish a task and make up to 50 percent more errors. Certainly, we can do several things at once if they do not require much attention, like exercising while listening to music or eating while watching a movie; it's those things that require more attention or involve people that create multi-tasking trouble.

We know multi-tasking while driving (texting, talking on the phone, anything else that takes your eyes off the road) is not a good idea and can have fatal results. Likewise, jobs that are cognitively or physically challenging would certainly not be good times to multi-task. And yet, at work, we often do this despite having a cognitively challenging job, and feel like we can get away with it. We conduct our performance reviews with employees while answering the phone or sending e-mails. We listen to conference calls while working on other projects.

Think about how often you multi-task when dealing with colleagues, friends or family, then think about how it impacts your relationships with those people. Some researchers have suggested that the cost of interruptions to American workers and the economy in terms of lost productivity and profitability is staggering (more than $650 billion a year).

So, what can we do?

First, understand and believe that multi-tasking with tasks that require our attention and effort is not productive. Put it to the test for one day and really focus one thing at a time (without interruptions). You'll be more productive and your associates will appreciate you more when you give them the attention they deserve.

Second, control your environment. Limit the interruptions you allow to your day. E-mail is one of the biggest interruptions because most people check e-mail all throughout the day. Try scheduling one or two blocks of time each day to check e-mail. If other people are your greatest interruption because they come into your office or space throughout the day, you can control that situation as well. You can either drop what you are doing and focus on that person right then or schedule a time to talk later. Either way, you avoid multi-tasking, stay focused and enhance the relationship.

Third, be more organized. Pull out only the materials you need for the task at hand. If other thoughts come to you while you are working, make a note. But don't stop what you are doing to start working on those tasks.

Fourth, wear earphones or invest in background sounds to keep you from being distracted if you have a noisy environment.

Fifth, set expectations. Let others know you are tackling one thing at a time. Discourage those around you from multi-tasking. Stop making it an admirable skill. Recently, in classrooms and training sessions, many academics and trainers have been starting to discourage the use of technology (phones, laptops) so that participants or students can actually listen to a speaker or hear what their fellow students have to say about an issue. The difference in engagement is remarkable, and even the students seem to like it better.

It's time to move past the badge of multi-tasking and back to trying to do a good job of whatever we are doing at the moment. It will actually help our relationships and productivity.

Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at

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