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Real Business People Multitask

by David Brock on August 7th, 2007

Ever wonder why we don’t get things accomplished in meetings these days? There are lots of reasons, but my pet topic right now is multitasking. The scenario is always the same…..

A critical meeting is finally scheduled, it took weeks to do, but everyone is scheduled to attend The Meeting…….
…….people drift into the conference room……12 minutes late…..

Everyone spends the first 5 minutes jockeying for power outlets, network connections, etc.

You finally start, it’s now 17 minutes into the hour….

Fortunately, you’re organized, you have an agenda, you’re focused, you persevere. Things get going, in the background you hear the sound of fingers on keyboards…..

…No it’s not people taking notes, it’s people responding to emails…..

With one ear, people are listening to the meeting, but part of their mind is distracted by the latest critical email……

“Can you repeat what you said, I missed it.” Fantastic, you caught some one’s attention, they have stopped doing emails for a moment. You begin to answer, then the inevitable sound……

….The deadly Nokia ringtone….

or, Hello Moto…….

Politely, someone gets up, desperately putting their mobile phone to their ear and walking out of the room……

You’re 30 minutes into the meeting……

….You try to regain control of the meeting… present the agenda again, start over….

A couple of people are sitting quietly at the end of the table, eyes demurely downcast, hands seem to be neatly folded in their laps below the table…….

……no, they have the “blackberry pose”….blackberry held below the table, both thumbs fully engaged in dealing with email.

Time to get assertive—or maybe a desperate plea, “Would everyone please turn off emails, cell phones and blackberry’s so we can get on with the meeting?”

You’re now 40 minutes into the meeting….present the agenda again, things start going well, people are paying attention, you are finally accomplishing something….

….10 minutes later you start seeing it, fidgeting and restlessness, suddenly one person’s eyes are again demurely downcast……

55 minutes into the meeting, activity starts…..no you haven’t caught their attention, they are starting to close their computers, pack up their things, after all there is the next meeting to go to…….

….well maybe we can continue by scheduling another meeting……..

We all know the story. Today, we protest our busy lives and the number of worthless meetings we participate in, yet we have met the enemy and it is our own obsessive behavior. Too often, it seems we measure our worth by how busy we are……or at least how busy we can appear to be. It used to be back to back meetings and a full daily calendar was a test of one’s business worth. Now, multitasking has added another layer on top of it. We can sit in a meeting, do email, blackberry’s, and listen on mobile phone calls all at the same time.


In the end, we accomplish nothing. One blog I read says that multitasking adversely impacts productivity by 30%—I think that is understated. Another described the computer phenomenon of thrashing–I think that’s a good description.

Everyone today is genuinely busy, each of us has a lot going on. But then I look more deeply at things, aren’t many of us just thrashing. We’re doing a lot, but not accomplishing a thing. This blog is about making a difference—it’s about producing results.

Multitasking hurts us, we actually accomplish much less. As an advisor to many organizations, I preach the importance of focus. The principle is as important for our own personal behavior. We are more effective and more efficient when we focus.

Technology is wonderful, it has provided us tools and capabilities to do a lot, but let’s use it appropriately. When we are in meetings, let’s dedicate our attention to the meeting…it will both shorten the meeting and reduce the numbers. When we are on a phone call, don’t do email. When we are doing email, do email.
My mother was visiting and I asked her to read a draft of this blog. She’s old school, she finished, looking at me confused saying: “Isn’t it just good manners to demonstrate your respect by paying attention to the people you are meeting with?”
Hmmmmm……….. Mom’s really smart.

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