The Multitasking Fury

For the modern professional, multitasking is an immutable part of daily life. Yet 97% of us are hopeless at it. It's a well-cited observation that juggling two or more things at once depletes our health and harms our productivity.
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While I was at the gym last week, I was shocked to see a fellow member lifting a fully stacked bar while simultaneously arguing with someone on the other end of his hands-free headset. Not only was he was ruining the quality of his own workout, he left everyone else in the gym shaking their heads and frustrated as they became unwilling, passive participants in his one-way shout fest.

I left the gym on a crusade to connect with those fighting multitasking habits -- not the multitaskers themselves, but the innocent victims, those who are adversely impacted by the increasingly abrasive habits of multitaskers in their vicinity. I didn't have to look far: The first five people I called to kick off my research, which consisted of interviewing working professionals between the ages of 25 and 55, had illuminating examples of how they were affected by someone else's multitasking.

Seemingly innocuous multitasking behaviors can have distressing consequences on others. David, a young strategy consultant, sent me a frustrated email. Tasked with solving a complex growth problem for a key client under tight timeframes, he observed a team member whiling away the days by intermittently browsing blogs and Facebook on his iPhone in between real work, when the rest of the team was in heads-down mode on their modules. As a result of this person's inability to control his attention span, the team's work output wasn't finished in time, and they did not produce a complete deliverable. The project was declared a failure.

For the modern professional, multitasking is an immutable part of daily life. Yet 97% of us are hopeless at it. It's a well-cited observation that juggling two or more things at once depletes our health and harms our productivity. As we clock in more hours on smartphones and social networks, we've ushered in the "provisional conversation": a face-to-face discussion that falls apart as one or more participants default to checking their phones, only to restart as the handsets are put back away. But why is it that when we talk about multitasking, we focus exclusively on how it hurts the multitasker?

The real cost isn't borne by this person at all. Rather, it's an annoying penalty that is unceremoniously dumped on everyone else. In this way, economists would argue that multitasking generates negative externalities. Like rising insurance premiums or pollution from a neighbor's chimney, its costly effects are burdened on the nearby people who had no say in the matter -- the ignored dinner partner, the irritated bystanders, the disappointed team members. One disgruntled wife said, "Because my husband was glued to his laptop every evening, our kids missed out on having a dad." Another analyst stated, "I hate meeting with my boss because he's on his BlackBerry the whole time. It makes me feel stupid." The costs of these deteriorating relationships are difficult to quantify, but the injustice is becoming too big to ignore.

There is hope. Based on the insights from my interviews, there are productive ways to break the multitasking habit -- even though that habit isn't yours. Small strategic steps that bring to light how the multitasker is stalling progress can go a long way.

Call out the multitasker mid-task. Sometimes the pace of everyday life makes self-awareness challenging. As psychologists would argue, "emphasize the interpersonal and intraspsychic costs" (PDF) of the multitasker's mistake. You can help by simply bringing attention to their multitasking habit and how damaging their behavior is becoming. The results could surprise you. One entrepreneur recounted, "After watching a VC constantly check his iPhone while I was pitching, I let him know that it was affecting the quality of our presentation. He put his phone away and respected me more as a result."

Find a new time to meet. To beat a multitasker, take away their Plan B, C, and D. If they're already engaged in something, reschedule time with them to have a proper interaction. One banker argued, "When my annual performance review meeting was sabotaged by my manager's email habit, I stood up and suggested we reschedule time after hours, when he was 'off the hook.'" An effective strategy for the workplace is to reschedule a slot at the beginning of the workday, before the day's emails, alerts, and notifications start rolling in.

Physically disengage. When multitaskers get tough, the tough get walking. One mother said, "If my kids are too busy playing with their iPads to have a proper conversation with me, I walk out of the room. That usually does the trick." Sending this powerful signal shows you're willing to play hardball and will pique the attention of even the most-seasoned multitasker. Of course, walking out on your boss probably isn't the best career option, so disengage in other ways. One junior consultant suggested that "moving to an empty chair on the opposite side of the room gave the senior partner space to wrap up her email and slide over to me when she was ready to talk."

Handle a multitasker's habit and pave the way for a more productive work environment. You'll alleviate everyone's irritation and frustration, and you might just rescue a failing project or a doomed relationship. By making them aware of their faux pas, you can stop the multitasking maniacs dead in their tracks -- and sidestep potentially damaging impacts before they arise.

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