I happened upon a little article at the Harvard Business Review on the topic of multitasking and disruptions, The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time, by Tony Schwartz. This has been a problem for many people I know, particularly those who live and work in the technology sector in the Bay Area. I don’t live in the Bay Area, but when I visit, it’s telling to see the number of people walking down a hall, or on the street, looking at their smart phone instead of where they are going and participating in what’s happening around them.
My most memorable incident was with a VP who would come out to Denver and invite me to breakfast. We would chat, and then his phone would beep with a text message and in mid-sentence he would start tapping a note on it, often stopping the conversation. The next time we had breakfast and he started to do this, I asked him what was more important, our conversation or a text that could be responded to at any time? He said he could multi-task, so it wasn’t a problem. I said being in the here and now in a conversation required attention and engagement with the person you are talking to. Would he kindly refrain from texting. We continued to debate the value of multitasking when another text came in. Again he began to tap out a message looking at his phone. I excused myself and left. After that, whenever we met, he purposely took his phone out of his pocket, turned it off and put it on the table. We can control our impulses, but sometimes you need a pointed reminder.
One of the comments to Tony’s article mentions a simple exercise to show that you are not more efficient when multi-taking. The task is to write the alphabet, a-z and underneath each letter, write the number 1-24 at the same time and as fast as you can. The next time, just write all the letters and then all the numbers underneath. them as fast as you can. How do you feel when you do it each way? Did you make mistakes? The claim is you can complete this task in less time, with fewer mistakes and minimal effort if you do it as two separate tasks, one at a time.
I have become a strong believer that multi-tasking is not a virtue but a bad habit and a vice. It can be turned around, like any habit, by learning to recognize when you are about to start doing it, and then not do it. As happened with the VP, maybe it just takes each of us reminding our friends to stay in the “here and now” when talking with each other.