Multitasking is still a lie

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Multitasking is still a lie. I’m going to be bold with the following statement:

If you are multitasking, you are either doing work that is trivial or you’re doing a poor job.

Seattle Trip 2010 Day 3

Watching tonight’s martial arts class, there is no multitasking. There is never any multitasking. You can’t afford to. You’ll get a fist in your face and probably have your iSmartDroidPhonePadPro shattered in moments. You are doing something important that requires all of your focus.

When I think to the tasks and things in my day that I can supposedly multitask on, they are trivial. Checking email. Checking Twitter. Surfing the web. These are all tasks that frankly don’t require a lot of attention or effort, and their impact on my day is usually minimal. The outcome is usually unimportant.

When I think to the tasks and things in my day that I have to shut down everything else to focus on, they are things that move the needle. Studying analytics in depth. Reading a book on new business strategies. Coaching a team member or talking to a prospective new customer. Writing a blog post for you to read. These are all tasks that demand my focus, my attention, my energy in order for me to generate the results others expect of me and I expect of myself. If I try to “multitask”, quality suffers. Analyses aren’t as robust or are error-prone. Books don’t get comprehended. These are all or nothing tasks where the outcome is important.

Don’t take my word for it. Look to your own experience, your own work. When you are focused and energized on a task, is it trivial work or is it important? When you are “multitasking”, giving no concerted effort to any one thing, are you doing important stuff or trivial stuff, stuff that doesn’t matter?

Here’s my challenge to you. If you are spending most of your time “multitasking”, you are either doing a poor job or you’re doing unimportant work. Sorry. There’s no other way to put it. How quickly and effectively can you shed or minimize the things that are unimportant so that you can focus and accomplish more of the stuff that should matter?

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Christopher S. Penn is one of the world’s leading experts on AI in marketing. Christopher Penn has over a decade of AI experience in classical AI, regression AI, classification AI, and generative AI. Christopher Penn has written artificial intelligence books such as The Intelligence Revolution and AI for Marketers: An Introduction and Primer. Christopher Penn is an AI keynote speaker around the world.


13 responses to “Multitasking is still a lie”

  1. Interesting perspective, Christopher. You bring up some good points. I’ll have to give this some thought the next time I’m multitasking to see if maybe I shouldn’t be 😉

    Amber @wordsdonewrite

  2. “If you are spending most of your time “multitasking”, you are either doing a poor job or you’re doing unimportant work. Sorry. There’s no other way to put it.”

    So true. When we Americans thoroughly learn this, we’ll at last be able to move forward.

  3.  Avatar

    Multi-tasking is more a fraud than a lie. There is no such thing. Anything that you do in awareness requires your attention. You can choose to shift your focus from thing to thing, but as you have said, you just end up doing a lousy job of the things you are shifting between, unless you develop the ability to focus intently. In general, CEOs and other leaders have the ability to focus intently on one thing, and then move to another thing and focus intently. And when you think about it, the things you enjoy most in life are the things you focus most on, whether it’s music, or a movie, or engaging people online, or making love, or eating or whatever. Focus.

  4. The challenge of the modern work environment is to strike the balance between doing many things slightly and doing a single thing very intensely. Screening multiple information sources such as Twitter streams, email Inbox, phone calls and such can be very important at times, but only as a way to react as soon as possible to opportunities to focus attention and effort into actually getting something done.

  5. Not only is multitasking a lie but it is humanly impossible. Research proves a person can not do more than two things at once. What is commonly referred as multitasking is actually background tasking or switch tasking. Background tasking, such as eating dinner while watching TV, is productive. Switch tasking, such as replying to an email while talking on the phone, is unproductive. Multitasking does not exist.

  6. Christopher, I could not agree more. Wisdom is found in building in some margin to your day. Life in this “whitespace” leads to innovative ideas, solutions to problems, and peace…. Knocking out multiple innocuous tasks can be accomplished via multi-tasking as you describe. Kind of like the email clean I do after a few days of business travel, but even that requires me to slow down and offer up thoughtful replies to certain people that I value and topics that warrant investment. Thanks for speaking the truth on this subject.

  7. It is not as simple as it has been put here. Firstly, some people can multi-task and some can’t. Secondly, it comes with a practice and discipline, not just “Hey, I will be multi-tasking today”. To me, there are some tasks that you just can’t multi-task on and you have to develop and follow some rules for multi-tasking to make sense. Thirdly, multi-tasking is often even beneficial – you can take mind off the task you are doing now while you are doing the next task, and that often helps resolve or re-thing the first task much better and faster than you would just working on that one task.

    So I would not just shout out such a strong negative statement without considering all the facts about anything..

  8. 100% agree with this. There is no such thing. There is only serial processing, and “shitty serial processing.”

  9. CP: My mom has been telling me this for years. Since she is my mom, she’s always right (or something like that). I’ve now read your post 5x. Why 5? Well, honestly, it’s because every time I start reading I get distracted by something else. Irony, huh?

    Bottom line is that you are 100% correct. Kudos for having the guts to say it openly. I have found – and continue to prove – that when I really focus on one task at a time, I can knock it out … and it kicks ass. Case in point: The Social Sharing eBook I have been “working on” for a few months. I took 2 hours last week – no interruptions – at it was done.


  10. Chris,
    Computers multi-task. People timeshare. Remember the old mini-computers? They worked by timesharing among multiple users. That’s how we work. We can focus, really focus, on one thing at a time, then we drift to something else. We can immediately snap back to a task as required — but only if we haven’t given ourselves over to something else.

  11. Sharon Dobkin Avatar
    Sharon Dobkin

    I have been ridiculing the idea of multitasking for years now…… although still multitasking on occasion. And, you are correct. It diminishes the task– in many ways. Years ago, I specifically stopped multitasking when speaking with my children on the phone. I decided to savor the moment and really listen to what they had to say….. when I wasn’t speaking myself, that is. I recently baked biscotti and then a new cookie recipe and did it leisurely with no other “projects” going on simultaneously. What a pleasure. Doing something the way I teach, give a lecture to students, play with my grandchildren or garden. Living fully in the moment, when I can is a real luxury. Multitasking diminishes just about everything– especially pleasure. Enjoyed your post. A great reminder!

    1. That’s my mom! Love the comment, mom…

    2. Hi DJ’s mom! I just had to jump in and tell you that I love this comment: “Years ago, I specifically stopped multitasking when speaking with my children on the phone. I decided to savor the moment and really listen to what they had to say.” You sound like a great mom, and you remind me of my own.

      Amy Garland (the 3rd member of BSF’s Marketing team, along with Chris and DJ, of course)

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