Leadership Myth Busting #7… the miracle of multitasking
Disclaimer: sometimes writing a blog involves rethinking my own approach to leadership.
I consider myself an efficient, outcomes-based, and productive leader. I remember getting my first blackberry (in the late noughties) and the joy of being able to redeem lost time by replying to emails while sitting through dull meetings, waiting in supermarket queues, and sat on the toilet! I’ve felt that technology has equipped me to multi-task effectively, enabling me to spin many plates at the same time and make better use of the limited number of hours there is in every day.
And now, with the Covid-19 lockdown and the utilisation of more technology (Zoom, Teams, Skype et al.), I am increasingly faced with the temptation to do multiple things at once. Particularly while attending online meetings I can simultaneously write an email, respond to WhatsApp messages, check my diary etc. etc. as I nonchalantly Alt-Tab from window to window (as a Microsoft user). I must even confess that I started writing this blog on the myth of multitasking while I was attending a webinar (hypocrite you correctly accuse)!
But I’m reconsidering my position and wondering whether my penchant for muti-tasking is actually a form of ill-discipline… and simply an excuse for not giving one person or task the attention it deserves, while compromising on the excellence of my work and causing myself undue stress in the process. Additionally, beyond multi-tasking, I’m guilty of multi-thinking; not allowing my mind to switch off. At any time of day or night, during conversations and even ‘family-time’, my thoughts can drift back to work-matters, my to-do list, or the next blog I want to write. Is this just how I’m wired? Or is it inherently unhealthy?
As you can see – I’m processing. But let me back up because it was something I read that has led me into this mini-crisis to doubt whether I should truly aspire to be a miracle-working multi-tasker.
John Mark Comer has written an easy-to-read yet challenging book called The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (a must-read for 21st-century leaders). At the end of the book, he gives 20 pieces of advice to help slow our lives down. Number 14 on his list is Single-Task. Just the word hit me between the eyes. I’ve heard many people laud the qualities of multi-tasking – but I didn’t even think that single-tasking was a thing. Comer says:
I’ve come to realise the obvious: multitasking is a myth. Literally. Only God is omnipresent.
Given that I’m into this “leadership myth-busting thing” I was convicted by his statement. Have I bought into the multi-tasking myth and is my pride in being able to multi-task really a figment of my imagination? Am I really trying to be godlike when I multi-task as this would clearly be overreaching myself? He goes on to say:
Multitasking is just sleight of hand for switching back and forth between a lot of different tasks so I can do them all poorly instead of doing one well
Wow! I’m now on the ropes and Comer gives a knockout punch by quoting theological giant, Walter Brueggemann:
Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.
Oops! I didn’t see that coming!
As I’ve been reflecting on this it has caused me to consider what I’m modelling to others. Does my outcomes-based, productivity-centred, goal-oriented approach model to emerging leaders something that is actually unattainable and potentially harmful to their leadership development? Am I both robbing people of my full attention and sending subliminal messages to those I lead that makes them feel devalued?
Slowing down to properly focus and attend to each task at a time does seem like a counter-cultural leadership practice – and therefore is, more than likely, a Christlike approach to leadership. I’ve been reading the accounts of Jesus life and teaching again recently, and have been struck by his single-task focus. No-one ever got his divided attention!
April Yamaski in her book Sacred Pauses also advocates for greater simplicity – for single-tasking. She argues that moving towards greater simplicity in our daily scheduling is a spiritual practice that can enable us to become more effective. Yamaski writes:
Simplicity is not only about letting go of the things of this life; it also means being centred on what really matters… Simplicity means that I don’t need to be multitasking every moment. Instead, I can slow down to pay attention to one thing at a time.
Maybe the underlining myth is that leading complex, full lives that stretch us to the limit of our capacity is somehow what’s required of us as leaders. Multi-tasking then flows as we succumb to unhealthy and unrealistic expectations. There is no miracle of muti-tasking. The miracle for me is if I can simplify my life in such a way that enables me to provide focused, meaningful, God-honouring attention to one task at a time.
After all, Jeremy Clarkson has reportedly quipped, multitasking is the ability to screw everything up simultaneously!
So I’m going to start an experiment in single-tasking. It’s going to take a fair amount of reprogramming the way I operate. I’ll need to develop some early warning systems to alert me when I revert to type. But let’s see what happens. Maybe I’ll end up in complete agreement that the miracle of multitasking is definitely a myth worth busting.
October 1, 2020 @ 6:25 pm
Brilliant review Tim I totally agree with your thoughts from John Mark Comer’s Book. Single tasking is a rarity in today’s pressure driven society many things in a short space of time, instead of doing one thing really well
October 2, 2020 @ 7:05 am
Thanks Steve. Yes, very challenging and requires a level of focus and discipline. It’s hard to unlearn bad habits…. while also coping with the pressures of modern life. So I’ve also realised I need to be gracious to myself as I seek to grow in this area.