We are a society of multi-taskers.
There is absolutely no doubt about it.
Just yesterday I witnessed a woman choosing groceries through several isles in the grocery store, while carrying on what appeared to be a very serious conversation on her cell phone. As I finished my shopping and moved to the checkout lane, there she was again, emptying her cart while continuing the sometimes very animated cell phone conversation. Finally, the checkout staff had to interrupt her conversation to ask her to pay for her purchases. Although the store employee was very nice about it, the customer was clearly offended about being interrupted.
As I was watching this play out, I thought, “Wow. When did this behavior (on the customer’s part) become acceptable in our society?”
Contrary to popular belief, multi-tasking is not a new behavior. People have always been able to multi-task when it comes to running a household and caring for children or others in the home. No one thought anything of it until women began trying to “have it all” by building a successful career while balancing home life.
When cooking a meal, sometimes I have active pans on all my stove burners while I’m cutting an ingredient on the side. My goal in this case is to have everything finish at about the same time, somewhat like a project manager who schedules tasks to complete simultaneously so the next phase of the project can begin.
As business leaders and employees, we multi-task on a daily and sometimes hourly basis; this is just the way it is. Think about the job descriptions you have seen lately – they all include the ability to multi-task and prioritize responsibilities.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have any problem or issue with multi-tasking. Some who know me would dub me the Queen of Multi-Tasking. As you can see from the photo here, I also have phone conversations while attending a Major League Baseball game. Trust me, I am not the only one doing this.
What bothers me, though, is the rudeness of some multi-tasking situations, such as the grocery story example I mentioned above.
If the phone conversation was so important, why did the customer not stop what she was doing and give her undivided attention to the call, and then continue on with her shopping?
Why did she feel the need to continue the shopping process while sharing her one-sided version of the conversation with those around her, and then berate the store employee for doing his job by politely asking the customer to pay for her purchases?
This analogy can also mirror workplace multi-tasking situations.
Think about it.
How many times have you held a conversation with someone while you were answering an email to someone else, or talking on the phone while writing a report?
The rudeness of that aside, how can you give your undivided attention to two or more people or tasks at the time? You can’t.
Early in my career I was lucky enough to work for a supervisor who stopped everything he was doing as soon as someone walked in his office door or the phone rang. Granted, the person on the phone could not see that he wasn’t multi-tasking, but while you were in his office, it was clearly obvious that you – and you alone – had his completely undivided attention.
While I haven’t always lived up to his standards in that regard, the picture in my mind is as clear today as it was in 1991. As an employee, his behavior made me feel valued, and certain that my opinion or concern had merit.
23 years later, the difference between that leader’s conscious effort to engage whomever he was speaking with and the grocery store customer provide an excellent lesson on the merits of multi-tasking. While you can certainly do more than one thing at a time, choosing to stop multi-tasking and focus on the most important matter at hand for a short period of time is quite often the better decision.
Editor’s Note: This post also appears on LinkedIn.
Before founding her own consulting firm, Dawn Gannon served as a respected project management and administrative operations professional in the military, higher education, and healthcare fields for 25 years. As a Lean/Six Sigma Green Belt, Dawn’s commitment and personal mission to improve the lives of others through service to the community focuses on providing administrative and volunteer management, consumer education, public outreach, event planning, relationship-building efforts, and strategic planning. She is a contributor on LinkedIn, the author of the Management in Motion blog, and has written a number of articles for RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association on the topic of childfree living.