The Myth of Multi-tasking: More Activity Doesn’t Mean Better Productivity

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

How many people believe they thrive on doing at least two things at a time and believe that they are achieving optimal results? When you are on the phone, do you ever hear the clack, clack, clack of the keyboard in background of the other party? Or if you are in the middle of a conversation and the other party has to put you on hold because there is a possibility that the third party may have something important to tell you. Or, finally, you use hands free for your conference call, you put it on mute and then conduct in-person conversations in your office or go though your email.

What happens? You miss the essence of the conference call; you may have been given an assignment you missed or you did not respond to questions that were directed toward you. What does this tell the host of the call or the other participants? That not only are you rude, but you may be the person who will throw a wrench into the spokes of an initiative that everyone is invested in.

Why is there is a need to accomplish everything in one day and leave open the possibility of deficient results? Everyone believes multi-tasking is the panacea for productivity, when in reality only raises the possibility of errors and misunderstanding. It also goes without saying that it is the height of rudeness — to both the party on the other end of the call or to the person sitting across from you in a meeting. It’s this myth that you are indispensable 24/7 if you can be reached anytime, anywhere. You have perpetuated this by doing multiple tasks, none of which has your entire attention.

What If There Were Only One Item On Your Plate?

There have been studies that show you can get more things done at one time. Consider even the simplest of tasks. You are counting money, taking measurements or even deciding the number of chairs to set out for a conference session. A text or an email comes to your device and distracts you from what you had been focused on. In all likelihood you will have to start over. On the other hand, those who shift their focus only a couple times a day can still maintain a high level of productivity.

The goal really is to commit to handling one thing at a time and maintain this commitment despite outside pressures; you may also regain control over the work-life balance you constantly complain you need to have and for which there are bookshelves weighed down with the guidance designed to cure you of this malady.

How is multi-tasking defined? Multi-tasking today means when someone works on several tasks or uses several electronic devices. These devices cause people to spread themselves too thin and diminish the value of their efforts. On a visceral level, studies show that those who text while driving are more likely to get into an accident. I have seen those driving who are putting on makeup, speaking on the phone, drinking coffee and/or reading the newspaper are accidents waiting the happen. The idea of looking through the windshield and the rear and side view mirrors is merely an afterthought.

What are these people trying to achieve? Are their actions designed to counter poor time management skills?

What Are the Excuses Giving Rise to Questionable Behaviors?

We here the same ‘ol, same ‘ol excuses every time:

— Too much work and not enough hours in a day

— Being pulled by all sides, each with their own agenda

— New demands being made by others, which on closer examination, seem merely to be pet projects and do not add to the overall organizational goals.

There must be some other-worldly creature that has captured our imagination and has pulled us into thinking that the only way someone is to survive is not to stop at addressing just one or two tasks, but to expand our capability and minds to attach to other tasks.

The prevailing view is that while multi-tasking shows that you may be competent, doing a single task evidences discipline and focus. Consider being introduced to someone. Your mind may be preoccupied with other thoughts, so you will be unable to concentrate to remember the person’s name the next time you meet, or even when the conversation ends. The excuse of “I’m not really good with names” is an overused excuse. If you are in the moment, you should be able to remember that person’s name. We are not talking about hundreds of people in the meeting hall to whom you will be making a presentation. I use word association; I select one thing about the person’s name and connect it with his or her looks to memorialize their name. The next time I meet that person there is a 100 percent chance that I will call them by their first name. This is because I was able to quell the desire to think of multiple (yet, irrelevant) things at the same time.

Busy? Everyone’s Busy. But Are They Really Productive?

Today’s mantra of “I’m really busy” means what? If you are maintaining what you believe is a busy schedule, it does not mean that you are productive or efficient. Read my February 7, 2017 article, “Does Busyness Mean Productivity?

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Never confuse action with activity.”

Two people meeting in a coffee shop and the conversation turns to who has the busiest calendar. Both parties seek to convince one another that their days last from the break of dawn to well after sundown. There is one-upmanship of course with one of them saying “You have it easier. My day never ends.”

Our culture has created a myth; we have been fed to Kool-Aid to explain the more tasks we work on the more effective results we will achieve. Moreover, we create a strong connection between busyness and a sense of self-importance.  If we drag ourselves into work with our eyeballs hanging down to our knees, it is our example of the “above and beyond-level” of dedication. But at some point, something has to suffer.

Take Control Before It Takes Control Over You

Phone calls, emails and the most annoying of all, the lingerers, who hang outside your office waiting for you to end your call or private meeting. These are your ball and chains that prevent you from completing your schedule. You can, however, employ a strong message in the right tone with a smile that others will find effective and accepting that you are not able to confer with them at the present time. Again, you need to focus at one task at a time.

Some people get nerved out if they are single-tasking. On one hand they want to hide themselves in a corner to concentrate, but any interruptions in the flow of their clear thinking will make it harder to get back to the more complex tasks. On the other hand, there are those who feel that if they don’t get back to someone immediately, it is a sign of disrespect. Make sure you set ground rules for when you need private time, or the new addition to our lexicon, “Executive Time.” It does not have to involve cheeseburgers in bed and watching multiple screen of cable news, but it enables you to think more clearly and define your priorities. And if those priorities require that you deal with them one by one, so be it. It may not meet with the desires of others, but it can avoid work that has to be done over again.

The key is to do one thing well than several things half-assed. Not only will productivity and success improve, it will also cultivate better working relations and a more civil discourse.


About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at