As a business coach I am often asked to observe a team meeting. I am asked to look for efficiency, effectiveness and appropriate use of time for participants. Without fail it is an attention getter, not so much for the agenda content but for all the add-ons (category: multitasking) arbitrarily brought into the room at the discretion of any participant. Clearly, this practice does not constitute efficiency, effectiveness or an appropriate use of participant time. So I became curious. When is multitasking during a meeting an asset and when does it work against progress and achievement?
My exploration led me to an article entitled “Multitasking … The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking” by Kendra Cherry. She highlights two key points:
- Multitasking can reduce productivity by approximately 40-percent according to some researchers.
- Switching from one task to another makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that can slow down your progress.
Popular work place culture holds that multitasking was a good way to increase productivity. Working on many different tasks at once means that you’re bound to accomplish more. Right? Well, not exactly, according to Cherry. Research demonstrates that the switching takes a toll on productivity. Being a multi-tasker can actually impair cognitive ability.
Let’s bring this home to what you’ve experienced. Any of these happen in a meeting you’ve attended?
- A cell phone rings and the recipient absolutely MUST take the call, effectively halting the progress of the meeting.
- A participant is looking at their phone screen reading a new email that just arrived as if it MUST be read in that moment. That they feel they must respond now, they thereby are saying goodbye to their participation in and contribution to the meeting. And did I mention the distraction created for everyone else in the process?
- Convinced they can multitask, this person is putting the finishing touches on a presentation they need to send off as soon as the meeting has ended, not realizing they’re missing critical interactions.
- You’re having a one-on-one and each cell phone ring results in “quick peek” to check what it is and then, perhaps, an “excuse me for just a minute. I have to take this”. What a waste of time for at least one person! Not to mention a bit inconsiderate.
- Your meeting is conducted via telephone. You can’t see what’s going on around you. However silence from a participant is a pretty good indicator that they’re focused somewhere else.
I have yet to find one multi-tasker who feels they aren’t completely capable of doing more than one “important” thing at the same time. Obviously their intentions are all positive. What they fail to consider is the impact of their actions on others or the sacrificed efficiencies due to all of the pauses, repeats and (im) patient waiting on the part of others. As organizations struggle to find ways to be more productive and effective in building to greater heights, does looking into this arena have potential merit? Is it time for the pendulum to swing back toward center and bring about a better balance?
It appears that ‘task surfing’ is not free. Its definite costs include the time it takes to re-immerse your mind in a topic. Rather than boasting … ”What a great multi-tasker I am!”, seriously consider putting all of your energy & focus on ONE task. Then, get curious about and observe what happens.
Above I’ve addressed multitasking taking place among meeting participants and posed the question of this practice being a benefit or boondoggle. I admit it just makes me curious to explore the super-duper multi-tasker working individually. But wait … I can’t do both things at once and will save that for another time.