The Fallacy of Multi-tasking (and why ants aren’t helped by sunscreen)

Don’t tell PETA, but I have to admit I cruelly killed little animals when I was a kid.

If it assuages anyone’s horror, they were just ants. I also was not alone; a bunch of us kids did it.
Burning ants
You know – find a trail of ants and then train a magnifying glass on it and turn those critters into crisps. I suspect this was a gateway crime for me, leading eventually to me tormenting squirrels with my Red Ryder BB gun and later dousing a rattlesnake with gasoline in my garage and igniting it with a match (the snake, not the garage, although it was a close call). That’s a whole other story. Later…

As fledgling scientists (and, of course, it was all in the pursuit of science!), we were morbidly fascinated with the energy and power that could be generated by concentrating the sun’s energy on what, honestly, most people would consider a problem.

Sometimes we forget that child-like fascination. I see far too many people who take pride in what they believe is their ability to multi-task. A growing body of research disputes that notion, contending that we are simply shifting our focus at astonishing speed from one activity to another, but hardly absorbing ourselves in any of them. We think we’re getting a lot done; in reality, we are missing a lot.

Solving the bigger problems or addressing the real issues we face as leaders takes focus. One of my clients has a great, confident way of putting it: “When I focus on it, it goes away.” It is what Claremont College professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “the flow” – the experience of fully immersing yourself in a task, drawing on all of your energy and focus, to the point where the task is exhilarating, the result is often transformational, and your sense of accomplishment goes to a new level. As well, time flies. For me, it was working through the nights, weekend after weekend, restoring a ’57 Chevy in high school, assisted only by my mechanically-inept friend Mark and an old tube radio blasting Booker T. and the MGs. The work was easy, and we got it done.
With all that going for us – less stress, greater sense of purpose and happiness, better results – why don’t we do it?

It takes discipline. The enemy of focus is distraction. Distractions are, by definition, something we allow. They do not demand attention; we relinquish it to them. When you realize the broader benefits that accrue to us by exercising that discipline, the value proposition around avoiding distractions becomes pretty compelling.

What are some of the big problems, issues and opportunities in your business? How long have they been hanging around? What will it take to focus on them? Are you willing to take that day (or more!) to do nothing but focus on it, get into that flow?

Indulgent? With some many other things coming at you?



About paulheagen

I am an executive coach, advisor and confidant who helps leaders better understand, refresh or redirect their purpose in their business and personal lives. Over my 35-year career as a corporate executive, communications consultant and trusted advisor, I have guided executives through “defining moments” – those unique times when the decisions they make, the words they speak, and the qualities they exhibit can influence not only the destiny of their organization but also their own lives and careers. When it comes to my clients and my life work, I am ferociously passionate and restlessly inquisitive about uncovering the unique dreams, vision and purpose that lead to exceptional leadership.
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One Response to The Fallacy of Multi-tasking (and why ants aren’t helped by sunscreen)

  1. gina says:

    you are sooooo….wise.

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