Multi-tasking is defined by Webster’s as “the performance of multiple tasks at one time”.

I think moms and dads who stay at home with their children and take care of the household are probably the best multi-taskers around.

During my time of unemployment I have been at home a lot and have been able to see first-hand the skills, planning, forethought, delegation, follow through and teamwork it takes to execute and manage a household. I have a much greater appreciation for it than ever before. These moms and dads are great examples of what a multi-tasker looks like.

For example let’s look at a multi-tasking mother who is doing laundry, preparing dinner, washing dishes, feeding lunch to a toddler, and tidying up the living room all at the same time. This is multi-tasking at its finest. Consider the forethought, planning and sequencing that goes into this level of multi-tasking.

To be safe and effective, the laundry and dishes had to be put in their washing appliances before the feeding begins. To be timely and efficient the toddler’s lunch had to be prepared at just the right time so that complaints are limited and no time is lost. The ingredients for the crock pot dinner had to be purchased in advanced and placed in the crock pot before the laundry was started.

If we take an even closer look and we see that delegation and follow up are critical components to multi-tasking, too. As her other child, a kindergartner, picks up toys and clothes from the living room the feeding mother keeps a watchful eye on the progress and teaches and coaches the 5 year old until the task is completed.

Now, let’s take a look at multi-tasking in the corporate world. Somewhere along the way the definition of multi-tasking has taken on a new meaning. Technology advances turned email and conference calls into primary communication methods and then tethered them to us with slick, easy-to-use electronic devices. While our Outlook calendars are full of meetings and conferences, there is no time scheduled to read and respond to 150-200 email messages per day. This is information overload.

What do we do? We try to handle it all. We read and respond to email messages on our devices during face-to-face meetings and during conference calls. First of all – when did this stop being rude? What happened to being courteous and respectful of the time and contributions of other people? If email wasn’t enough, the advent of instant messaging in the office adds another layer of distraction. Our attention spans become shorter and shorter every time we squeeze in one more message and try to respond to every electronic request while holding separate unrelated conversations.

This new practice of multi-tasking is not multi-tasking at all. The human mind cannot focus on multiple conversations at once while responding with executive brain functions in concert with hand-eye coordination. This multi-conversation practice has become as dangerous and risky as texting while driving. Our customers, employees and businesses are paying the costs.

How does an employee feel during a conversation with the boss, when the boss has one eye on an email message or iPhone? How much money is wasted on conference calls with 5-10 people who are all reading email at their desks or chatting on IM? How many bad decisions are made because no one is paying attention? Maybe this is the leading cause of our customer service desks’ rising inability to listen to the customer. Customer experience suffers when employees are not valued and when customers are not listened to.

How many times have you proofed or prepared a presentation while on a conference call and found that you missed some key points or had a stray “cut and paste” appear on a slide? Hey, I resemble that remark. Have you ever sent an instant message about an employee to the employee instead of the intended person? Oops! I’ve been there, too. How many times have you responded to an email with the wrong answer or omitted important words and caused a miscue or misunderstanding? Yikes! Me again. All of these happened because I was trying to hold multiple conversations. My effectiveness dropped and I had to rebuild trust and credibility at times.

I was inspired to write this post after reading “The Real Harm In Multi-tasking” by Dr. Travis Bradberry. I have a lot to say on this subject, so I will continue my article tomorrow as a “Part Deux”. Take a moment to read Dr. Bradberry’s post and then read my continuation tomorrow. “Part Deux” will include several facts about your brain which should convince you that information processing requires our dedicated focus to yield accurate and effective results.

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