My daughter sat down to dutifully complete her math homework. She did one problem, and got up to go to the bathroom. She came back, stopped to twirl happily on the way, humming, and did another half-problem. She got up to feed to the cat. She came back, via the refrigerator, got a snack, stopped to sharpen her pencil, and finished the second problem. She got up again, little feet dancing around the chair, and dashed upstairs to get an eraser. Before she sat down, she got a tissue. This continued for almost an hour, until the ten minutes worth of questions were finally answered.
From the kitchen, I watched this scene with amusement – not thinking that she had ADHD (she doesn’t) – but rather about how similar her very typical child behavior was, in adult terms, to that esteemed value we call multi-tasking.
There is no such thing in the business world as doing something. If you’re not doing multiple somethings, you’re not efficient, you’re not productive. How many times have watched clients start one project – something really urgent, that really needs to move forward quickly. Then, something else comes up, they get distracted, and I hear from them two weeks later. Then the project becomes even more urgent, until it’s moved down in the priority list again.
In this way, countless projects that could have taken two weeks take months. Because multi-tasking isn’t really doing somethings – it’s doing pieces of somethings, which often add up in the short term to nothings. Like the mother I saw in the schoolyard, talking simultaneously to someone on her cell phone and to her child. She was actually talking to neither.
The point is this: in a world where the ability to multi-task has become a value and a benchmark for productivity, there’s still room for linearity! You can actually be more productive if you devote your full power of concentration to one task at a time, bring it to some sort of resolution, and then move on to the next task. Or, as my grandmother (who was not a multi-tasker in any sense of the word) used to say: “finish what you started!”