Companies & Industries

The Ethics of Multitasking


Stop the multitasking madness: Put down the iPod and your BlackBerry, and pay attention to the task at hand

I'll never forget how great I thought it was when I first discovered multitasking on my computer. Suddenly it was possible to switch between tasks seamlessly; with multiple windows, tabs, and programs open simultaneously. I could write articles, check e-mail, do research, and build spreadsheets—barely pausing between activities. I felt as if I were doing everything at once. It seems like ancient history now, but being able to move quickly and smoothly from one activity to another on a PC was nothing short of a revelation.

But then a funny thing happened: I noticed that the more things I could do with ease on my computer, the harder it was to focus on any one activity. My natural inclination to jump from one thing to another prematurely was now aided and abetted by technology—the very thing that was supposed to be helping me. Then, after the PDA and cell phone became a part of my daily life, I found myself, like millions of others, faced with even more interruptions, and it became increasingly difficult to concentrate. The technological advances that once seemed so liberating had become oppressive.

I came to realize that multitasking isn't something to be proud of. In fact, it's unethical, and good managers won't do it themselves and will not require it of those they manage.

Here's why multitasking is unethical.

When you multitask, you're doing a lot of work, but you're not doing most (or any) of it well. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that people who fired off e-mails while talking on the phone and watching YouTube videos did each activity less well than those who focused on one thing at a time. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! (Ballantine, 2006), puts it this way: "Multitasking is shifting focus from one task to another in rapid succession. It gives the illusion that we're simultaneously tasking, but we're really not. It's like playing tennis with three balls."

Truck Crashes

We're in the early phases of understanding fully what multitasking involves at the neurophysiological level, but the emerging research suggests that multitasking reduces rather than enhances the quality of our work—and our lives.

A multitasker behind a desk is unproductive. A multitasker behind the wheel of a car is a potential killer. A study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that when truck drivers texted, their collision risk was 23 times as great as when not texting, according to a report in The New York Times. The Times also reported that University of Utah researchers showed that talking on a cell phone while driving quadruples the rate of crashing, a statistic equal to what happens when people drive drunk.

These studies led the U.S. Senate to propose legislation last month that would prohibit texting or e-mailing while driving. (Texting behind the wheel is illegal in 14 states now.) The number of businesses and advocacy groups that endorse such a policy is growing rapidly; the Governors Highway Safety Assn. signed on this week.

A bank executive I know frequently complains about how distracted her boss is during staff meetings. The boss—I'll call him Eric—reads and writes e-mail and makes calls while briefing the staff. "I'll ask Eric a question about an assignment he's given us," my friend complains, "but he's so immersed in what he's doing that I have to repeat my question a couple of times. It ends up taking me three times as long to communicate with him." Eric isn't a bad person. But he's not a good manager, either.

Since multitasking interferes with the ability to do one's job well, the good manager sets an example by focusing on one task at a time. You can't expect the people you lead to resist the urge to multitask if you can't do so yourself. You've probably been annoyed when a clerk is more interested in his or her phone conversation than in assisting you. Why, then, is it O.K. to do the same thing when you're working with your team?

In Control? Or Being Controlled?

Yes, I know it's hard to put those devices away, even for a few moments. I'm not sure whether BlackBerrys and iPhones cause attention problems or simply make those who are susceptible more prone to them. It doesn't help that everywhere we go, we're surrounded by people who are absorbed in their electronic gadgets. What it comes down to is this: Are you controlling the technology, or is the technology controlling you?

An actor I once knew had a catchy slogan on his business card: "Always there. Always ON!" It was a memorable way to let casting directors know of his commitment to his work.

It seems as though employers too expect their employees to be "always on"—online, on e-mail, or on call. But this simply isn't fair. Employees deserve to have time away from work, and managers should respect their down time. This makes sense from a business perspective, also: Employees who can recharge their batteries and don't feel pressured to be "always there, always on" are more likely to do good work when they're on the job.

For the past three years in this column, I've tried to show how doing the right thing makes good business sense. Respecting an employee's right to be left alone for a portion of the day is a shining example of this.

Technology is morally neutral; it can be put to good or bad use. Managers who want to make the best possible use of technology will take the following guidelines seriously:

1. DO ONE THING AT A TIME.

Focusing on the task at hand is the best way to get the job done. Multitasking may feel effective, but it isn't. "Monotasking" maximizes your own productivity and serves as a positive example to others.

2. RESPECT THE PERSONAL LIVES OF THOSE YOU MANAGE.

Boundaries are good, and good managers honor them.

3. DON'T ALLOW YOUR TEAM MEMBERS TO MULTITASK WHILE DRIVING.

When you're on the phone with a guy who tells you he's behind the wheel, tell him to hang up immediately and get back to you when he's out of harm's way.

4. GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK.

The ethical principle of love and compassion applies not just to how you treat others but how you treat yourself, too. You're entitled to watch a movie all the way through or to have a nice meal without looking at your e-mail. And let's face it: There aren't many e-mails so urgent they can't wait a few hours.

5. REMEMBER WHY THEY'RE CALLED "SICK DAYS" AND "VACATION."

A person too sick to come to the office is entitled to convalesce without feeling pressured to work at home. This applies to management and labor alike. The same is true for those on vacation. And as for those who have lost a family member or who have just gotten married: If ever there were a time when someone ought to be free from multitasking, surely it's this.


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