Stop multi tasking if you want to get anything done

I don’t know when multitasking became en vogue. I think I first really became aware of it during an internship at a law firm when I noticed many of the attorneys would flit from one thing to another, and rack up huge billings, but never really seem to get anything done. It wasn’t until a deadline or something blew up with a case when they would focus all their attention on one project and make a lot of progress very quickly.

In high school, my grades were somewhere between abysmal and “please don’t tell my parents” (as a side note I dated a girl once who got grounded for a week when her calculus grade “slipped” to an A-) and for the most part not much better in college with a couple exceptions: I never got less than an A on any final or in my major classes. So what changed?

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I changed. During finals I had a complete singular focus: study hard for one test or work hard on one paper, finish it and move on. Multitasking was never a consideration because the stakes were too high and the deadlines, though tight, were somewhat staggered. As for general class work, not all classes were equal priority and only top priority classes got top priority attention from me.

Then I graduated, went to work in the “real world” where everything is top priority, everything is due NOW, you are given more work than any reasonable person can handle and if you crack “then you weren’t good enough to work here.” Back to multitasking, back to trying to get somewhere on everything because I had to, because it was due at once, back to mediocrity.

Merlin Mann has written on several occasions that e-mail is other people’s demands on your time. Um, ok, that’s nice but in a company when a boss or client says jump, you jump.

As a former boss recently posted on Twitter, to be successful in agency public relations you have to be able to juggle a million and one things without dropping any of them, all while playing on Twitter. Here’s the funny thing: he doesn’t multitask – ever. Nor does anyone who claims to successfully multitask, they just are able to switch gears very quickly from one project to another.

In the past I used ADD as an excuse for lack of focus, really I think it was lack of perspective, maturity and discipline. Perhaps I am an ADD child as the number of thoughts bouncing around in my head at any given time is frightening, but in life you have to focus on one thing at a time or nothing gets done.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to be gained from working on a project, putting it on the shelf, and coming back to it later with a fresh perspective. But that really isn’t multitasking, is it?

In the new age metaphysical world, people talk a lot about the power of attention and focusing on what you really want, but I think the operative word there is focus. I suppose I have a lot more to say on the topic, but will save it for future posts.

So where did today’s rant come from? My lovely bride sent me the e-mail copied below as a joke. I didn’t laugh, I just got annoyed, then mad. It is pretty funny when you read it and laugh at this poor sap. What makes it searingly unfunny to me is that this e-mail represents the reality behind the way people are taught to think and act, and in fact demanded to act in many businesses and corporations.

Subject: Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder – Know the Symptoms

Diagnosed with AAADD

Recently, I was Diagnosed with AAADD – Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder. This is how it manifests:

I decide to water my garden. As I turn on the hose in the driveway, I look over at my car and decide my car needs washing.

As I start toward the garage, I notice that there is mail on the porch table that I brought up from the mail box earlier.

I decide to go through the mail before I wash the car. I lay my car keys down on the table, put the junk mail in the garbage can under the table, and notice that the can is full.

So, I decide to put the bills back on the table and take out the garbage first.

But then I think, since I’m going to be near the mailbox when I take out the garbage anyway, I may as well pay the bills first.

I take my check book off the table, and see that there is only 1 check left. My extra checks are in my desk in the study, so I go inside the house to my desk where I find the can of Coke that I had been drinking.

I’m going to look for my checks, but first I need to push the Coke aside so that I don’t accidentally knock it over. I see that the Coke is getting warm, and I decide I should put it in the refrigerator to keep it cold.

As I head toward the kitchen with the Coke, a vase of flowers on the counter catches my eye–they need to be watered.

I set the Coke down on the counter, and I discover my reading glasses that I’ve been searching for all morning.

I decide I better put them back on my desk, but first I’m going to water the flowers.

I set the glasses back down on the counter, fill a container with water and suddenly I spot the TV remote. Someone left it on the kitchen table.

I realize that tonight when we go to watch TV, I will be looking for the remote, but I won’t remember that it’s on the kitchen table, so I decide to put it back in the den where it belongs, but first I’ll water the flowers.

I pour some water in the flowers, but quite a bit of it spills on the floor.

So, I set the remote back down on the table, get some towels and wipe up the spill.

Then, I head down the hall trying to remember what I was planning to do.

At the end of the day:

1) The car isn’t washed
2) The bills aren’t paid
3) There is a warm can of Coke sitting on the counter
4) The flowers don’t have enough water,
5) There is still only 1 check in my check book,
6) I can’t find the remote,
7) I can’t find my glasses,
8) And I don’t remember what I did with the car keys.

Then, when I try to figure out why nothing got done today, I’m really baffled because I know I was busy all day long, and I’m really tired.

I realize this is a serious problem, and I’ll try to get some help for it, but first I’ll check my e-mail.

Do me a favor, will you? Forward this message to everyone you know, because I don’t remember to whom it has been sent. Don’t laugh — if this isn’t you yet, your day is coming!!

So bottom line is this, multitasking is nothing more than some MBA’s excuse for his uncontrolled ADD and a whole bunch of people decided it was a good idea because it excused theirs. If you want to get something done, cut out all the other distractions and foc … Hey look, something shiny!

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