The Multi-tasking Misnomer Revealed.

February 12, 2019

By Phil Ransom

People say “I’m multi-tasking” all the time. Knowing the challenges of managing multiple demands, I believed them. Coming to understand what they meant, I tried developing my ability to multi-task. but I never got the hang of it.

I mean, I would intentionally work on something first so it could be handed off to another on the team, then turn my attention to another task so it felt like two things were happening at once, but I was only tending to one. I was waiting on the other. (I still do that, by the way.)

So I glibly labelled myself a Rapid Sequence Mono-tasker. “I can shift quickly from task to task when I need to,” I’d say, but deep down I knew, I’m one of those guys who does one thing at a time. I don’t have to totally finish C before I pick up D, but I work on one item at a time. “Call me old school, if you want, but that’s how I’m wired.”

Then I started seeing studies cited that indicated Multi-tasking is a misnomer.


a misapplied or inappropriate name or designation.

We don’t multitask, we just say we do. I perked up a bit. Maybe I’m not all that strange after all. We’re just distracted more. It’s tougher to stay focused. Isn’t THAT the truth? Don Wyrtzen warned of the boredom of over-stimulation 40 years ago; we’re even more overstimulated now. I mean, there’s no cognitive reason to drop an ad into the middle of a 90-second Facebook video. I don’t need a break. You might want my money, but I can make it to the end of this clip. But that’s another post.

So I’ve been noticing. Watching people, myself included. I’ve seen work teams unable to hold their focus. Groups of people supposedly working on the same task, but fragmented or distracted. A few months ago I gave a talk in which I asked the participants to close their laptops and turn their phones face-down for 20 minutes so they could see on the screen the progression I was about to unwrap for them. Afterward, one participant said to me “I think today is the first time I’ve seen my boss’ laptop closed in a meeting. Ever.”

I’ve observed families and friends sitting at restaurant, heads down, missing conversation moments because they’re reading screens. I’ve seen colleagues have to repeat things because one of the team was mentally elsewhere. It’s everywhere.

I’m going to just say it: You don’t multi-task. You might believe you do, but when you’re watching TV, you’re not reading. The book might be open on your lap, but you’re not reading, you’re watching TV. And when you decide to read some more, you’re no longer watching TV.


When you’re actively talking with someone and your phone chirps or rings, in that instant you decide which is more important; which you’re going to respond to. If you’re focused on the person you’re talking to, the interruption waits. It’s a bit like teaching your second-grader not to interrupt. “I’m talking with someone, please don’t interrupt.”

If you’re on Facebook, you’re on Facebook, nowhere else. You may be sitting in a conference, class, or church, but you’re on Facebook. It has your attention. That’s what you’re doing.

If you’re reading emails, you’re not watching the game, you’re hoping for good instant replays. It’s cognitively impossible to process two things at once.

If you’re texting, you’re not driving. You might be in your car, in the driver’s seat, and it might even be moving. If you’re texting, you’re counting on nothing happening while you do that instead of this. You’re not doing both.

When I’m on LinkedIn, I’m not writing. It’s is a key component in my business mix. I learn from people who are doing things well, I meet people there who may one day become clients, but only once so far have I been paid for reading LinkedIn (it was a research brief). Writing and speaking are billable. Networking and relation-building are separate.

Maybe this mono-focus is why I read in the other room, sans TV, or even music. I want to get what the author has to say the first time, uninterrupted.

So, bottom line, I don’t multi-task.
Neither do you.

For further reading:

Psychology and Neuroscience Blow-Up the Myth of Effective Multitasking, by Scott Mautz

5 Steps for Being Present. Be here right now, now, now, now…
by Michael J. Formica MS, MA, EdM

The Myth of Multitasking: Why Fewer Priorities Leads to Better Work
by James Clear

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