I remember when I learned to drive. There were no cell phones back then or GPS, just my 8-track tape deck and AM/FM radio. Fast forward to Oct. 1st, 2014 when a new law went info effect where I live in Vermont that bans the use of handheld portable electronic devices while operating a car. Vermont is only one of 12 states (plus D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) to have such a law, although there are 44 states (plus D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands), which have laws banning text messaging for all drivers.
At the crux of the issue is the concept of the distracted driver. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “each day in the United States, more than 9 people are killed and more than 1,600 are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.”
First and foremost, I want to be a law-abiding, safe driver. Secondly, as a Learning & Development Consultant, this new law also has me drawing parallels to the workplace and the ongoing debate over distractibility and multitasking.
Take the following definition, which I’ve modified from the National Safety Council:
Distracted driving [working] is any activity that diverts a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving [working]. All distractions endanger the safety of drivers [employees], passengers [colleagues] and bystanders [customers], and cell phone use [multi-tasking] is the number one distraction behind the wheel [desk].
So what’s the real danger to us at work as opposed to on the road? While it might take a research scientist with a Ph.D. to figure out that multitasking actually lowers IQ and causes brain damage, it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that multitasking divides our attention and results in an increased likelihood for sub-optimal results. Whether we’re actually trying to do two things simultaneously or rapidly switching between tasks, we’re doing ourselves a disservice, because when focus is interrupted efficiency and effectiveness are diminished.
Let’s not waste time on the banalities of those who walk and chew gum without incident. Instead, let’s imagine a common business scenario where you are attending a meeting and checking email. And let’s be crystal clear here – there is no boss who has told you that you need to be doing both. This is a self-induced directive (out of stress, fear, self-aggrandizement, and so on) under which you are operating. But, if there’s to be a benefit to your involvement, don’t you owe it to yourself and others to give a situation your full attention? It should be about being fully present so you can contribute to your fullest – listen actively, ask good questions, brainstorm creatively, analyze thoughtfully, and engage with others respectfully. How many times have you left a meeting regretting that you weren’t paying closer attention or that you failed to fully grasp a situation because your mind was flitting to other places?
There are plenty of tactics that you can try out on yourself or your company may impose on you. Perhaps you don’t allow yourself to check email more than 3 times per day (vs. one study that reported an average of up to 20 times daily) or company policy is no laptops or cell phones in meetings. These may be effective to a degree for raising your discipline.
What gets me excited is the possibility of redefining the expectation for how we demonstrate that we are productive, efficient and effective. What if we challenge the assumption that the best method for achieving these desired states is via multitasking? What if instead we dedicate the appropriate amount of focus to a particular task / project / interaction so that within this protected, distraction-free zone we achieve better outcomes? This doesn’t change what we do or the amount we’re responsible for, but it does change how we do it.
Let’s ban multitasking. One place we can start – job descriptions. As I look today at a sampling of classifieds, the regularity and prominence with which these kinds of phrases appear in the ad or job description is quite high:
“must have the ability to multitask”
“proven track record of multitasking”
“the ability to multitask efficiently”
Strike multitasking from job descriptions. Multitasking becomes a red flag when uttered in an interview or printed on a resume. The new cultural expectations around singular tasking permeate through the organization. While leadership reinforces the message anyone at any level of the organization can set an example of focus.
From where I sit, whether you’re running a campaign to ban handheld devices while driving or to ban multitasking in the workplace, the goal to limit distractions has similar benefits.
When you’re not distracted while driving you can…..
When you’re not distracted while working you can…
By no means do I think this will be easy. In fact, I might even equate a ban on multitasking to the prolonged effort to ban smoking in public places, the ban on plastic (shopping) bags, or even the (failed) attempt by former N.Y.C. Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban oversized sugary drinks. But if we leverage research and self-restraint to harness the motivation for a different way of behaving, then individually, and ultimately collectively, we have a greater likelihood of becoming the high producing, efficient and effective contributor(s) we strive to be.