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Multitasking is so much a part of our everyday business lives that to question it seems almost unprofessional yet, there are times when it is the epitome of bad behavior, e.g., driving while texting, eating, applying makeup, driving while doing almost anything other than driving. Whatever happened to old fashion focus? At the risk of sounding like a throwback to the sixties, I would like to state for the record the value of being here now.

Multitasking comes up regularly in every business setting and is considered an important part of our daily routine. To even question the concept seems odd in today’s workplace. After-all, we couldn’t function today if we actually took the time to do one task at a time. There is simply too much that needs to be done. Cut backs in support staff, etc., require us to wear a multitude of hats. Most of us are constantly switching gears and moving from one task to another – and not just at the office. We have become dependent on our mobile devices and have acquired such a high level of proficiency with them that we can be virtually anywhere when we split our attention between two, three or more tasks – and split we do. It has become so much a part of our daily practice that some of us find it difficult to relate to the idea that there may be a benefit to focusing on one thing at a time. Who has that kind of time?

Wikipedia defines human (vs. computer) multitasking this way:

Human multitasking is the best performance by an individual of appearing to handle more than one task at the same time. The term is derived from computer multitasking. An example of multitasking is taking phone calls while typing an email. Some believe that multitasking can result in time wasted due to human context switching and apparently causing more errors due to insufficient attention.

I think it is important to note the phrase “appearing to handle”. Handling a task and appearing to handle it are clearly not the same. While there’s a case to be made for efficiency, there is also one to be made for accuracy. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t want a needed surgery to be performed by the “Fastest Scalpel in the West” or, by a surgeon whose claim to fame is that he/she can perform two appendectomies at once. Some things just require more time, patience, and attention.

In a piece by Jon Hamilton on NPR titled “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again”, he quotes a prominent neuroscientist from MIT saying:

People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

I understand the importance of juggling multiple tasks but, just as we must prioritize what we do throughout our day, we need to determine which tasks require our full attention. Sometimes they’re not tasks at all, but rather a moment shared with a coworker, an employee, a friend or, our significant other. Sometimes we have to make the time to focus in spite of whatever else is going on. No one would dispute the importance of regularly devoting one’s full attention to his or her spouse.  Is it really any different in business? Once in a while we need to focus on just one task and be here now.

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