Note to Clients: Multitasking is a Myth

You think you can, but you can’t. I’m a freelance writer and I can tell from your phone conversations when you are also reading yourguy on cellphone and computer email. How do I know? You stop making sense. You do OK with yes/no questions, but if you need to think, I can hear crickets chirping in the background while I wait for you. And then you always ask me to repeat the question.

Sure, you can talk on the phone and drive at the same time. But you can’t do both effectively. Studies have shown that people who are yakking on the phone are as effective driving as someone who is legally drunk. Ninety-five percent of the near-accidents I’ve had on the bike involve people on the phone.

You need your brain to sort things out, divide them into categories, make choices and think. You are already doing this when driving or reading emails. Adding another task to it slows you down more than dial-up.

And you really aren’t paying attention to the emails, either. This week, I had to contact client X to confirm a seminar I am supposed to lead. I asked the client if we were still on for [name of seminar] on [date]. I got an answer that said, “I’m not on that committee anymore.”

Not only doesn’t that answer my question, it makes me write another email asking X for a new contact. Back comes the reply, with the name of the new committee head, Y.

Another email, asking the new committee head the same question, “X told me to contact you to confirm that I will be running [name of seminar] on [date]. ”

Back comes an email from new committee head Y. “This year’s seminar topic was set many months ago. If you’d like, you can pitch your idea to the head of the education committee.”

Y is normally a bright person. But I will bet Y was on the phone when she read my email. Because Y wasn’t paying attention, she didn’t answer the question. Not even close. And, while I’m complaining, the head of the education committee’s name wasn’t included.

Sigh. Off goes another email from me. “I’m confused. I’m not pitching a seminar, I’m checking the schedule to see if I’m running your seminar on [date].”

The answer? You’ll cringe. “I wasn’t the head of that committee. X was. You can contact her.”

yellow foam shoesPlease tell me we are not a nation of multitasking yakkers, schlumping around in big, poorly-fitting, brightly-colored foam shoes, on the phone and PDAs, not paying attention, and leaving a trail of destruction in our wake. Please tell me that you won’t multitask anymore, that you will stay in the moment and pay attention to your phone calls and then pay attention to your emails. Write your answers carefully. Check to make sure you answered ALL the questions in the email.

Still think you can multitask? OK. Sit down. Pick up your right foot about 6 inches from the ground. Rotate it clockwise. Comfy? Great. Now, using your right hand (even if you are left-handed), draw the number “6” in the air. Your foot turned the other way, didn’t it?  Hah! One thing at a time, please. It works better that way.

–Quinn McDonald has known the truth about multitasking for a long time. She speaks in complete sentences while on the phone because she isn’t doing anything else. If you call her and she doesn’t answer the phone, it’s because she’s in the car. See her work at Images: shoes, Computer/phone guy, (c) 2007. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “Note to Clients: Multitasking is a Myth

  1. Hi Quinn, I love your instruction on how to write a Journal. For many years, I have always wanted to keep a good journal. I began and never continued. As a result, I have lots of incomplete journals. Reading your note on journaling has put the “knots and bolts in place.” You have covered all of my deferments. For example:
    “You can keep a journal in anything that feels comfortable and that’s portable–a spiral notebook, a rollabind book you’ve put together with lokta paper, index cards held together with a rubber band. You can use a computer, keep a blog, although that doesn’t work as well for me. I believe things on the internet are simply not private, password protected or not. And I like the feeling of flipping through pages.”

    Thank you.

    • What a wonderful note to receive. Thanks, Maggie, and I hope your nuts and bolts fit well and stay tight. If they don’t, stop back–there’s a lot of healing in journaling, and it’s worth the effort.

  2. In answer to Shewolfy, I wonder if your knitting plus is true multitasking. Rote work, like knitting, spading in the garden, or (my favorite) a long bike ride, engage the body while leaving the mind free to mentally doodle. I bet if you were knitting a new, complicated pattern, you wouldn’t be able to do much else.

    In my humble opinion, the cell phone has been damaging to our society. With the exception of an emergency call once a year, what benefit has it brought except to make you available to your boss on what used to be your own time?

    I confess, I have a cell phone. The only one who has my number is my wife. And she has one too, which she never turns on, thus keeping me (the only possessor of HER number) from nagging her.

    Just once, I gave my family doctor my cell phone number because we were having a problem adjusting my heart meds and she wanted to consult a cardiologist. Of course, she caught me 15 miles from home on a bike ride, so I didn’t happen to have necessary documents for an intelligent discussion. Had to promise to high-tail it to her office before quitting time, which ruined a perfectly good bike ride, and gave me a stressful 45 minute ride along main highways and into the city to her office. No wonder I have heart problems; they are caused by cell phones.

  3. I guess I need to amend my previous comment – I do multi-task when I have knitting in my hands. My mind tends to wander if I am in a boring meeting (or watching TV) and if I don’t have pencil and paper to doodle with or plain knitting in my hands it’s even worse. When I have my knitting, my mind wanders as far as that and then I can yank it back into place. If I don’t have the knitting, it just wanders farther and farther afield…

  4. But I LIKE the puffy, ill-fitting brightly colored foam shoes – and I don’t like to multi-task! (I know I do it badly.)

  5. Thank you for your recent posting. Unfortunately I’m no longer on the shoes committee; please contact the current chair with your proposal for a seminar about size 6 clogs.


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