The Multi-tasking Myth

Posted on July 18, 2010

In our daily lives we are presented with many opportunities to multi-task. We expect this of ourselves, as we try to produce as much as we can – both professionally and personally – in the average day. But how effective are we – really – at doing this? In a fabulous book called Your Brain At Work, David Rock addresses how our brains are wired, and how we can best use our brains to the greatest extent in the workplace. Where does multi-tasking fit in? For the most part we stink at multi-tasking and ought to use multi-tasking very selectively. In his book, Rock discusses how amazingly ineffective we are when we try to multi-task. We simply shouldn’t do it, except in certain well understood circumstances.

The Intelligent Disobedience Leadership team refers to this as the 98/2 attention span. We may be sitting in a meeting or “listening in” on a conference call while having a side discussion, or answering emails on our smartphone. Are we multi-tasking in this instance? Well, yes, we are, kind of. Are we actually paying attention to two things at once? Hardly. You’ve seen it and experienced it – someone is in a meeting pecking away on their smartphone and someone poses a question to them. No response. Someone then calls out their name, and suddenly, they are attentive and participating in the meeting once again, putting down the smartphone! This embarrassed person was genuinely multi-tasking, but that doesn’t mean they were effectively PARTICIPATING in two things at once. 98% of their attention was diverted to the smartphone email, and 2% (maybe) was still in the meeting – enough to respond when their name was called, but not enough to know a question was posed to them. Had this person truly been multi-tasking, it would have been obvious that the meeting question was directed toward them and no calling out of their name would have been necessary.

We constantly fool ourselves into thinking we are multi-tasking. We just aren’t effective at performing two things at once. We are working on one thing and “presently interruptable” for another – lending 2% of our focus on the lesser activity. Next time a task or meeting or conference call requires 2% of your attention, go for it and multi-task. However, if you need more than 2% of your focus to accomplish what is required, you should chuck multi-tasking out the window and PRIORITIZE what you do at any one time to give each task the focus it deserves.

Intelligent disobedience often involves saying “no” in situations where it is not an expected response. We should all be saying “no” more often when we are expected to be engaged in more than one thing at a time. We are fooling ourselves when we think we believe we can split our focus.

Intelligent Disobedience Leadership provides workshops, coaching and consulting with a focus on courageous leadership through intelligent disobedience. We can help you and your teams design a community of practice which leverages constructive “intelligent disobedience.” For further information, email us at