Chewing Gum and Walking at the Same Time Maybe Should Be A Challenge! (Two great mistakes of the multitasker)

“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simple not giving the kiss the attention it deserves”
Albert Einstein.

My wife cannot sit still. Her mind is always racing and consequently her body is always trying catch up with all the tasks her mind has told her need to be done. She is the consummate multitasker. Her phone has become the consummate enabler for good or for bad. The picture below of her on the phone while sweeping is typical.

joey dock 1
Being productive is awesome but don’t make the mistake of thinking you are a great multitasker if, when in reality, you are falling victim to the two worst mistakes a wannabe multitasker makes.


Mistake One
Don’t mistake being busy with productivity

I love getting things off my checklist and going to bed feeling like the day has been productive. I like to think that I can work on many projects at the same time. When I say, however, that I can process many issues and problems, I don’t mean that I can focus on all of them at the same time. I became very good at prioritizing and delegating so that many problems were being addressed at the same time when we built and operated a water park. But this is not saying that I can do two things at the same time. I do not do well for example, trying to listen to someone talk to me on the phone while someone in front of me is also talking. I can switch gears quickly to another issue but I cannot handle both of them at the same time very well.

When we multitask, the danger is that we mistake the need to get things done right now with the need to get one thing done correctly. It is almost unavoidable that the old story of the farmer trying to feed his chickens plays out at our home weekly.

The story goes that the farmer went out to feed his chickens and while walking across the porch noticed that the step needed a nail pounded back in it. He thought that he ought to go ahead and take care of that before anyone tripped on it so he headed to the barn to get a hammer. Once there, he recognized that his tools were all over the place from a recent project he had been working on so he decided to take the time to clean up the place and get his tools back in order. While doing that he saw his broken screwdriver he had busted the day before and remembered that he had planned on going to the store to buy a replacement. Being efficient he decided to make a list of everything else he needed to get so he could make the most out of his trip to the hardware store. He went back into his house to get a paper and pencil. The paper was easy to find but the pencil needed to be sharpened. He reached in to his pocket for his pocket knife but it was not there. He strained his mind to remember where he had left it and recalled that he has used it the previous day out by his front gate. He walked to the gate to look for his knife almost tripping over the hungry chickens gathering around his feet. Giving one of them a nice boot he exclaimed with stress in his voice…dang chickens..can’t you see I am busy!

Do you sometimes get so many things going at once that you feel like you are sometimes just making a lot of motion without getting anywhere?

A great example of someone who seems to be doing a lot of things at the same time but in reality is doing it in an orderly fashion would be a chef. He gets an order with chicken and steak and salads and beans and desserts, all of which require a certain amount of prep and cook time. He knows when each needs to be started so that it comes out at the right time to be served as a hot meal. He accomplishes multiple tasks because of his experience and by delegating and when the smoke clears you have a nice meal sitting in front of you.

A lesson for the wannabe great multitasker is to not mistake busyness with productivity. When given multiple issues that require your attention, develop a way to prioritize them between those that need your attention and those that can be handled by someone else. Delegate what you can. With the remaining issues determine the priority of each one and the amount of time that may be required. You may be able to send out an email on some issues to get the ball rolling so you can started on other issues while waiting for a response. Then focus all of your energy and wisdom on the one issue right in front of you. Take it to the furthest point of resolution and then move on to the next issue on your priorities list.

To someone on the outside you look like a madman picking up the phone and barking out orders and moving from file to file. But they don’t see, that much like the chef, there is order to your madness. In fact you are giving each issue your 100% attention in the critical framework for when it needs to be solved. When you can apply 100% of your attention to multiple issues during the day you are an effective multitasker. When you handle all of your crisis at once they do not get 100% attention. Though you are giving 100% of you, both you and your progress are stressed, frustrated and ineffective.

Mistake Two
Don’t incorrectly use the label “brainless”.

There are a few things we can do at the exact same time well. For example, chewing gum and walking seem to be mutually executable without taking away from the other…for most people! We can fish and converse with our friend and drive while we listen to good music. We typically can mix what we would call “brainless” activities together and do them at the same time. The problem is that we sometimes mistakenly put the brainless label on things that actually require our attention.

For example, some may feel like you can read the paper or watch TV while listening to your spouse talk about their day. Others may feel like you can go through in your mind the children’s home work projects that require your attention while you are kissing your spouse. We allow these type of multitasking experiences to happen because there generally is not a significant short term penalty for not paying attention. We do not realize however, that damage is being done. It is nearly impossible to focus on two things that need our attention at the same time in a meaningful way.

I remember by example what the leader over my church mission in Chile taught me. Once a month a few of us would have the opportunity to go to his home for training and direction. I was 23 years old and it was time that I treasured with great anticipation. While in his office with just a few other missionaries, he would lead us in wonderful discussions and impart wisdom. Occasionally one of his young children would interrupt our meeting and just barge right in. I watched with great interest as he would bring our meeting to an abrupt halt and focus all of his attention on the child. When he was finished and the child left, he would turn to us and pick up right where we left off, without missing a beat.

I learned so much from that experience. When we handle many issues it is important to be able to prioritize them but first we need to make the correct assessment as to their importance. My Mission President knew what was most important and did not hesitate to prove it to us by his actions.

Recently my wife tried to clean the pool with a long net while talking on the phone. The back end of the pole hit the pool screen throwing her in the pool phone and all. Sometimes we are reminded that what we think is a brainless activity actually requires more attention.

My recommendation is next time your spouse wants to talk about the day or give you a kiss, turn off the TV and stop thinking about the other things on your mind. Pay attention. When your kids come in and seem to be hanging around and want to talk, turn off the movie or stop mowing the lawn and focus on their lives. Pay attention and next time you are chewing gum and walking reconsider what really constitutes a brainless activity. Maybe you can make some improvements at home. At least consider that at times, you or I may be the one that actually deserves that label.

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