"The ability to focus attention on
important things is a defining characteristic
I recently had the pleasure of speaking to
the International Association of
Administrative Professionals at one of their
monthly luncheon meetings. I thought you all
might enjoy the information I shared with the
group. I have been doing some research on
this topic since I'm focusing more of my time
on training people to communicate and listen
more effectively. That topic is a skill that
employers are demanding of new hires - the
ability to multi-task.
Being in the moment
Although employers request the skill, I'm
more convinced that we were not designed to
multi-task and that our relationships and
lives (business and personal) suffer when we
do not focus on the person in front of us or
the job we need to do.
Multi-tasking makes learning harder
When you are dividing your attention, you
don't learn as well. There are different
parts of your brain that handle memory of
information and memory of tasks. One
particular part is normally affected when
learning new tasks without multi-tasking. If
you have to multi-task, the part of the brain
that you use changes. That part is not used
to remembering information. Can the brain
adapt? Eventually, yes. Our brains are
marvelously nimble. Even after a stroke when
part of the brain is damaged, people can
recover all the skills they have lost. But
until the brain adapts, quality decreases.
Multi-tasking wastes time - and can be
When you multi-task, you don't actually do
two things at once. You shift your focus
between two activities. You may think you
can do this effectively, but research shows
that if you do, you are in a very small
minority (although you are in the majority in
thinking you can do it.) There are two
distinct processes that happen when you
shift. One is a goal-shift - you decide you
want to do activity B instead of activity A.
The second is a rule-shift - you change the
mindset so that you can do what needs to be
done. It's sort of like changing between
software programs and remembering how things
For instance, I'm working on the computer and
the TV is going in the background and the
phone rings. I mute the TV. When I'm
finished with the call, I want to turn the
sound back on and I find myself moving the
mouse like I would to turn off the screen
saver instead of hitting the mute button on
the remote. Each of these shifts takes time.
Goal shifting takes a split second, but rule
shifting can take a half second which can be
enough time for your car to crash as you
switch from talking on the phone to handling
whatever hazard is on the road.
Multi-tasking is rude
We live in a society where we are becoming
further and further disconnected from each
other. We use ATMs and pump our own gas.
Sometimes our only human contact is when we
are at the drive-thru. And we've gotten so
bad that the service person doesn't know if
we are talking to him or her or to someone on
our cell phone. My friends have "caught" me
checking my email while I'm talking to them
on the phone. I don't want my friends to
ignore me, so I need to pay attention to them
From a customer service perspective, we need
to pay full attention to the people we serve.
From a customer standpoint, we owe the
people who wait on us the courtesy of being
there, being present when they serve us.
We need to pay attention to the people we
meet because that human connection is
ultimately what life is all about. Try it.
Try actually listening to the people you
meet. Don't think about what you want to
say. Don't think about what you're going to
do later today or this weekend. Listen to
the people who talk to you.
You can't avoid multi-tasking completely.
But when you have a choice, choose not to do
it. If you can, put your phone on voice mail
when you are completing a task. Leave a
message that explains that you will return
the call at whatever time. Then return the
calls. Most importantly, try this at home.
You may be surprised at the reaction you get.
You might hear what your spouse or your child
really needs - time with you.