Fact – as humans, we are better at deluding ourselves than we are at multitasking. Perhaps this explains why so many of us trick ourselves into believing that we can perform multiple complex tasks at once, despite the fact that research clearly dispels this myth. In reality, we are incapable of multitasking in even the most routine situations. Just ask my wife – she busts me 100% of the time when I attempt to read emails while on the phone with her!

Multitasking vs. Multi-thinking

While it is possible to do multiple basic tasks at once (hammering a nail while singing), it certainly is not possible to focus and think about multiple things at the same time. This is especially true when the things we are attempting to do simultaneously (answering email while on a conference call) rely on the same part of the brain (e.g., the part that is responsible for communication). Research shows that we actually have to stop thinking about one thing and switch to the other, but that we cannot do both at once. As it turns out, these “switching costs” are not worth it when the stakes are high.

Multitasking becomes especially problematic at work, and specifically in meetings. One glance around any meeting room reveals a variety of activities going on, from paying attention and contributing, to texting, emailing, and Facebooking. The most surprising part to me is that this behavior seems to get worse as we progress in our careers… at precisely the same time that we are paid more to be fully engaged thought leaders.

Think about it!

Do you think Peyton Manning is texting and reading emails while on the field practicing with his team? Absolutely not. And he certainly is not texting and emailing while on the field playing in a live game. Why, then, do so many professionals do this when “on the field playing?” It simply does not make sense.

I’m not suggesting that there is no place for multitasking in general. I am, however, suggesting that there is no place for multitasking when you are in meetings, on calls, or interacting with people. Your business, and your people, deserve your attention… as does your professional health.

Top Five Reasons Not To Multitask

Focus – Anyone who is the best at what they do is able to do something very well – focus. From professional athletes to the best leaders in the world, focus is a key differentiator.

Thought Leadership – As leaders, a major part of our value is thought leadership. You simply cannot be a thought leader if you are splitting your thought between multiple tasks/activities.

Engagement – The more you divide your attention, the less engaged you are. This is simple arithmetic, and it is indisputable. If you have 100% of your potential engagement to give, you give less than 100% to any one activity when you divide your attention. Do you want to be known for giving less than 100% to anything?

Respect – While not convenient, apply the golden rule here. Do unto others as you want others to do unto you. If you’d like people to engage and pay attention during your meetings or when you are speaking, afford them the same courtesy.

Advancement – Meetings are public, and they are an audition for promotion. Never forget this. If you stop multitasking for no other reason, remember that the better you perform in public, the more likely you are to get promoted.

Get Courageous

  1. At meetings you host, establish a policy of focus, attention, and engagement at the outset… and enforce it!
  2. When participating in meetings (yours or others), challenge everyone to give their full and undivided attention to the meeting… because the business needs and deserves it!
  3. Lead by example, and stay away from email, the Internet, and text messages during meetings. Most business meetings have breaks every couple of hours, which provides ample opportunity to scan and respond to critical messages.
  4. If a given meeting or conversation is not important enough for you to focus while attending, simply do not go. Stay in your office alone, where it is just fine to text, email, and Facebook – all at the same time!

Lead. Courageously.

Doug's Signature

  • Hey Doug! Great article great site. I really enjoyed this one especially, as all of us can find an instance of doing this one way or another. I saw an image the other day that had a stack of cell phones piled in the middle of the table, the first person to grab for it had to pick up the tab, thought it was a great idea, but also made me think of how necessary that is now.  And I think of that image every time I am engaged with another person(s).


    • Thanks for stopping by and adding your perspective, Brian. I agree – the idea with the cell phones is great. At the root, it underscores the challenge in being “disconnected” and focused, even for relatively short periods of time. For those of us who can accomplish this, however, there is much to be gained…even more than not paying the tab!


Books I Recommend
About Me
I am the Chief Sales Officer at McGraw-Hill Higher Education. More
© 2016 The Courageous Leader