Paying Attention discussion guide

Think You Can Multitask? Think Again...

The Problem: The multitasking nature of our society has permeated business. What masquerades as productivity is actually distracted, illogical behavior that results in bad decisions and numerous errors.

After listening to one person after another explain to me how easy it is for them to carry on a conversation and text at the same time, or otherwise perform an endless number of tasks simultaneously, I finally came up with a way to politely explain that this is hogwash.

Here’s how you, too, can demonstrate the basic limitations of human concentration: Give them three balls.

If you don’t have a lot of balls around the office, you can also use apples, oranges, lemons or even candy bars.

Now ask the person to juggle these four items for at least 20 seconds without dropping one.

“But,” they may protest, “I don’t know how to juggle.”

Fortunately, juggling is easy to explain. You toss one ball in the air from your right hand, so that it reaches a peak and then falls into your left hand. When the first ball reaches its peak, you toss a ball from your left hand in the opposite manner. When that second ball reaches its peak, you toss the third ball, which also was in your right hand.

The hard part is not how to juggle but rather the concentration necessary to throw each ball at the right time with the right arc, and to catch each ball as it descends.

If you wish, you can allow the other person to go home and practice. Those who relish a challenge may come back and show you that—voila! —they can juggle.

Congratulate them, for they have now learned how to do one task effectively.

Now give them a fourth ball. Invite them to, once again, take all the time they need to practice. If the person comes back and demonstrates they can now juggle four balls, you now know one person who can multitask.

Yes, juggling four balls is like doing two things at once. This is the level of concentration required to do two things well, simultaneously.

Don’t be surprised if no one comes back a second time. The late Stanford professor Cliff Nass studied multitasking, and in 2009 Nass described how he and his colleagues were looking for multitasking activities at which multitaskers excelled.

In an interview with the PBS program, Frontline, Nass said, “We all bet high multitaskers were going to be stars at something. We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information, they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized, and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”

Translation: if you think you can multitask, you are delusional.

(I originally published this section on the Wharton Magazine Blog Network.) 

how to start a discussion around this topic

1. Start by engaging people who want to participate. Skip those who don't.

2. Pick a specific time, and don't let the conversation expand beyond the set time. "Wednesday from 10:30 to noon" is better than "let's start talking about this at our weekly meeting".

3. Create a safe space. Focus on ideas, not people. Don't be critical of individuals, but rather specific behaviors. Never preach.

4. Pick 1-3 questions from the below list. It's better to discuss a few questions in detail than to superficially race through more of them.

There's a reason business is not spelled "busyness". We're not supposed to be frantic; we're supposed to operate with clarity and focus, even - especially - when times get challenging.