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Joseph was talking to me about something he feels is important to the ad staff he manages. “These days, there’s a lot of talk about multi-tasking,” he said. “But according to what I’ve read on the subject, there’s no such thing. We can shift back and forth between tasks, but doing two tasks at once would be like putting a stick-shift car in first gear and second gear at the same time. It can’t be done.

“Sadly, multi-tasking is seen as a desirable skill,” Joseph explained. “I know a lot of people who claim it’s one of their greatest strengths. Some job descriptions even list it as a requirement. They just don’t understand that multi-tasking is an unrealistic cliché.”

Psychologists agree that a human being is not capable of doing two tasks at the same time. Sure, we can do two things that don’t compete for our focus (like carrying on a conversation while walking), but we can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time. When we think we are multi-tasking, we are actually task-switching – moving quickly from one thing to another. Think of it as a fast shift between first and second gear.

“I think of multi-tasking as multi-risking,” Joseph said. “We’ve all seen YouTube videos of
people walking into telephone poles and falling into fountains while they’re looking at their
phones. And of course, we know that texting and driving is a lethal combination. Talking on the phone while driving is distracting enough, but texting is stupid. It’s as dangerous as drunk driving.

“In the business world, trying to do two things at once might not put your life in danger, but it can cause mistakes. For example, if you try to write an email and talk on the phone at the same time, you’ll risk miscommunicating something to both parties. You can give one or the other your undivided attention, but not both. Even if you don’t make a mistake, it can be frustrating to the person on the other end to hear your keyboard clicking in the background.

“Trying to multi-task can also damage relationships,” he said. “I remember going to a luncheon which featured several presenters. The manager of one of the speakers was there to support her staff member, but spent the entire time looking down at her phone. Her seat was at the head table, right next to the lectern, so everyone in the audience could see that she wasn’t paying attention. A few days later, I ran into the speaker, and he told me that his manager’s actions showed that she obviously didn’t care about what he was saying, even though he was talking about the company where they both worked. Not surprisingly, a few months later he left to take another job.”

Joseph is right about multi-risking. When someone tries to concentrate on two important things at the same time, it creates a risk that is not worth taking.