The Truth About Multi-tasking (spoiler alert: it’s a myth)

“Look, I’m an adult. I’m responsible. I can do two things at once. When I check my email, I’m not being disrespectful toward you. I’m capable of listening to you while I respond to emails I’m receiving on my phone. We’re all grown-ups in this room, I don’t think we need rules about our behavior like we’re in kindergarten.”

A colleague shared these thoughts with our organization while I was leading the opening session of an all-staff meeting several years ago. We were establishing ground rules for the remainder of the day as well as for future all-staff meetings. Several heads nodded.

“Shall I remove ‘No cell phones’ from the list of agreed-upon group norms?” I asked the group.

Several nodded. Most stared at me to see if I had a counter point. I didn’t. All I could do was cross “No cell phones” off the group agreements chart.

I thought of this interaction recently when I read John Medina’s Brain Rules. According to the research cited in his book, the idea of literally multi-tasking – trying to do two things (such as reading email and listening to someone talk) at the same time – is a myth. Someone who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task and makes up to 50% more mistakes. This is why talking and/or texting and driving is such a dangerous proposition. It’s also why the idea that someone can compose an email and absorb your presentation is a losing proposition.

It’s not a matter of “being an adult.” It’s not a matter of “being able to do two things at once.” It’s science.

What’s a Presenter to Do?

You can certainly try to “legislate” behavior through ground rules and setting expectations that everyone agrees to at the beginning of a session. You’ll probably find more success (and everyone will be happier) when you don’t offer the audience an incentive to check their email in the first place.

The more lecture and talking at the group, the most incentive people have to pull out their iPhones to see what’s happening back in their office (or tweet about how they’re bored to tears from your presentation).

The more opportunities the audience has for engagement – individual reflections to a question posed by the presenter, small group discussions, brainstorming, simulations, demonstrations – the less desire to multi-task. In fact, putting people into small groups to discuss or problem solve or create something – a setting in which everyone’s participation is important – makes it darn right rude of them to pull out their smart phone to check their email.

And You?

What do you do to prevent “multi-tasking” from happening during your presentation?

Looking for some ideas to engage your audience, try these posts:

Know someone who still believes in multi-tasking? Pass this along.

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