Multitasking: One of the Most Odious Words Coined in the Last Decade

Let’s spend a few moments today talking about something you should NOT be doing and its opposite — which is the core habit of all successful enterprises. Of all the hot air that inflated the New Economy bubble (new myths about how businesses grow, what they should be about, the ergonomics of the new office, the psychology of the new employee, and how new businesses should be valued), the idea of multitasking has somehow survived the justly embarrassing fate of its imaginary siblings.

I’m still seeing it in business magazines. And it still denotes something good. What a joke. The idea of multitasking itself is inconsequential. It is simply a new term for an old practice: doing a number of things at the same time. I can eat food and read at the same time. Big deal. What is pernicious about the use of the term “multitasking” is the idea behind it: that the Age of Information has fundamentally changed not only the way we process information, but also our ability to do so.

A new, young breed of worker is evolving along with the new technology. This new Super Worker can — like the computer — do many things at the same time. The idea is absurd, but sometimes you can make a dumb idea sound smart by giving it a new name. Hence: multitasking. Is multitasking new? Ahh – no. Man has been multitasking since an ox-drawn cart first passed a pretty cave girl. Is multitasking good? Usually, no. And especially not for ETRs. The reason is simple.

If you want to accomplish important goals, you must do important things. Important things can’t be done with only one eye open. They require attention and energy. Energized attention means focus. It means doing one thing at a time. “Multitasking” is a euphemism for being sloppy and inefficient. Successful people — when they are most productive — focus all their energy and attention on the task at hand. They focus on the problem until they understand it. They find solutions by thinking without distractions. They set in place solutions by demanding the focused attention of others.

Think of any important task you do — anything that’s on today’s “to-do” list — and ask yourself honestly if you can do it well if you are half distracted by something else. Multitasking makes you feel busy. You are in a whirlwind, scanning your computer, glancing at memos, talking to three people at a single time. It feels powerful and impressive — but it’s not. It’s wasteful and foolish. Let me put it another way: Any task you can properly accomplish while multitasking is a task you shouldn’t be doing in the first place. It’s too simple. It should be delegated or not done at all. So much for multitasking.