Have you ever been on a conference call and simultaneously checked your email? Come on, you can admit it. At some point or another, all of us multitask. Even if you think you are not a multitasker, chances are that you do it anyway. Haven’t you returned phone calls and eaten lunch while driving to a client meeting? Most people say that multitasking makes them feel more efficient. The Wall Street Journal says multitasking makes us stupid.1
So, why do we keep ignoring the evidence and fooling ourselves about the benefits of multitasking? We tell ourselves that some people may not be good at multitasking, but we believe that we have figured out a way to make it work. We think that when we are handling several things at once, we are making the best use of our time and energy. The more balls we can juggle, the better we feel about our ability to manage our work as well as the rest of our lives. The fact is, however, that we are being seduced by the potential of accomplishment into actually accomplishing less. We are serving no one — not our bosses, not our clients, and least of all ourselves — by refusing to acknowledge this awful truth: we can’t do it all. Well, at least not all at once.
Before we go any further, let’s make an important distinction. When we talk about multitasking in this article, we do not mean the act of working on several different client matters in the course of a day or even in the course of one hour. Certainly, there are times when everything must be dropped so that the needs of a client or more senior attorney can be met. This simple fact cannot be ignored in the practice of law. When we refer to multitasking, we specifically mean the act of doing two or more things at one time. In the most primitive sense, walking and chewing gum is multitasking, whereas switching from working on Client A’s brief to handling a conference call for Client B is not. Now if you were working on Client A’s brief while being on the conference call for Client B, that would be multitasking!
The mechanical abilities of our brains must be acknowledged, so that we can, whenever possible, use them to the best of their abilities. Specifically, because different parts of the brain are required to perform different tasks, alternating between two or more activities requires more time than one might think. What we often fail to realize is that there are actually three steps in changing gears. First, there is the thought of and decision about changing tasks. Then, there is time taken to actually switch our focus to that alternate task. And last, there is the additional time it takes to gain our bearings in the new activity or mode of thought.
Granted, these amounts of time are quite small individually, but when we consider how many times a day, an hour, or even a minute we allow our focus to shift, it begins to become clear how we are losing time. And this is time we could be using to do other things — working, playing with our kids, or exercising! In addition to losing time, according to University of Michigan researchers, we are also becoming more prone to distraction, forgetfulness and errors.
Take Sandy for example. Sandy is a bright, energetic young attorney with much promise. Among the things that his partners saw in him upon giving him an offer were his willingness to work hard and his high ambition. Sandy had no intention of letting them down by not living up to their expectations. So, he worked hard, and, as he saw it, he worked smart. Sure, he worked some long hours, but he prided himself in not doing that as often as his colleagues. He made sure he was being as efficient with his time as he could. After all, he didn’t want to be one of these who burned out because he had no life outside of work.
Sandy saw nothing wrong with this way of working; in fact, he liked the “rush” he felt when he was being most productive. Little by little, though, Sandy began to notice “stupid” mistakes in his work. At first, he was able to find these mistakes himself, and then they began to be noticed by others. In addition, these mistakes were getting bigger. No longer were they errors in spelling or grammar, but errors of fact and judgment.
Not understanding why this was happening, or how to fix it, Sandy sought the help of a coach. Early in their time together, it became evident that a number of issues were at play. Sandy felt a great deal of pressure to perform at the level that was expected of him or higher. Not only did he feel this from his employers, but he felt it from himself. He had always been a star, and didn’t want to stop being one. Another factor was the amount of work and the variety of tasks involved in each and every case to which he was assigned. Most disturbing to him, however, was the fact that it seemed that the harder he tried to remedy this problem, the worse it seemed to get!
First, Sandy’s coach helped him to realize that he was not unique or alone in facing this problem; people across the workforce were facing similar challenges. Then, they developed a plan for him to have something in his office to remind him of the dangers of multitasking, so that he would see it when he was tempted, and could make another choice. He agreed to use this “structure” until he could remember on his own to focus on one thing at a time. After all, this would be a new habit he was forming, and it wouldn’t happen overnight. Then, Sandy and his coach continued to touch on the subject until he felt as though he had conquered the challenge.
As Sandy discovered, simply keeping focused, and having a reminder structure in place to help you do so, can cut down on multitasking. In addition, you might try shutting your office door, allowing voice mail to pick up your messages, and turning off Outlook or your Blackberry when you are focused on a particular matter. You may also be able to ask someone such as your assistant to “run interference” for you. Setting aside a particular amount of time for each task, or set of tasks that are similar, can also be very helpful.
Deep down, we know that as much as it is encouraged by our society and even our bosses, multitasking is not serving us in the long run. In fact, what else are you doing right now while you are also reading this article? We only need to get honest with ourselves to realize that in our attempt to accomplish much and do it well, we are actually doing neither. So, rather than allowing yourself to become a victim of multitasking, choose to identify and implement some tactics that will help you stay focused and treat your tired brain to one task at a time.
1 “Juggling Too Many Tasks Could Make You Stupid,” Sue Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal Online, 2/28/2003.
© Debby Stone and Laura Biering 2006
Debby Stone, JD, CPCC, PCC, co-founded Corner Office Coaching in 2002 and serves as CEO. Debby holds both undergraduate and law degrees from Duke University. She practiced law for 16 years, first in a large Atlanta law firm and later in her own firm. Debby received her coach training and certification from The Coaches Training Institute, has completed Organization and Relationship Systems coach training through The Center for Right Relationship, and is accredited as a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation. Debby also serves as a senior editor and contributing writer for The Complete Lawyer. Debby works with Corner Office Coaching as a coach, consultant and facilitator. In addition, she runs the day-to-day operations of the company and oversees the work of the firm’s Affiliate Coaches.