We've all seen it before—the person driving down the highway, talking on the cell phone and performing some form of personal grooming as well. It's called "multi-tasking" and we think we're pretty good at it. As it turns out, we stink at doing more than one thing at a time. According to researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, much of our multi-tasking is ineffective and possibly dangerous. Chabris and Simons are the authors of The Invisible Gorilla and they say that people vastly overestimate how well they perform while multi-tasking. Their research began when they were undergrads at Harvard with this now-famous experiment, which you can watch on YouTube.
Last month, Ira Flatow of NPR's Science Friday interviewed Chabris and Simons in a segment called "How We Pay Attention". In the interview, they discuss the implications of this overconfidence: from the highly serious (police officers who miss critical information) to the more mundane (teens who say they concentrate "better" when they study while listening to music and watching television.)
Says Dr. Chabris,
"It's a fallacy that we're able to multitask and do two or three or four or five things at once, just as well as we could do them if we did them one at a time. This is, for example, one of the reasons why some people talk on the cell phone while they're driving – because they don't get the sense that they're driving less well than they actually are. They don't get the sense that they're missing unexpected things because, of course, they don't see what they're missing."
It was a fascinating discussion about human perceptions, backed up by some thought-provoking research. I found myself wondering about the implications of this research for leaders in the workplace. Nearly every leader I know is swamped: hundreds of emails a day, demanding customers, understaffed departments. The pressure to produce faster, cheaper and higher quality output is never-ending.
So is it any surprise that a leader might turn to multi-tasking in an attempt at getting more done? It sounds like a reasonable tactic and it's one that we've heard proffered by many time-management gurus. I once had an executive proudly recite his time-management techniques to me. Among his favorites: reading business periodicals while walking on the treadmill and completing "no-brainer" paperwork while attending others' staff meetings. I should point out that this was a highly effective leader who was personable and well-respected amongst both peers and staff members. He was not an interpersonal dolt. Rather, he was overestimating his effectiveness at multi-tasking and therefore felt it was acceptable to "kill two birds with one stone" at staff meetings.
According Chabris and Simons' research, to perform a task optimally humans must focus intently on one thing at a time. Moreover, it's the false perception that we are keeping track of all the important data that gets us into hot water. And this, in my opinion, is how this research can help leaders: don't fool yourself into thinking that you're "getting stuff done" because you can do three things at once. Instead, ask yourself: "Is this task worthy of my full attention?" If the answer is "Yes", then put down the smart phone, close your day planner binder and focus. Maybe you'll get a few less emails answered, but you'll enjoy the benefit of a fully aware interpersonal experience. And who knows, you might actually see the gorilla in the room.