One Thing at a Time

Single-tasking – It’s downright unfashionable these days. If you put “master of one thing at a time” on your resume, you are guaranteed not to get a second look. That’s too bad. In my book, it represents a point of serious competitive advantage.

Yeah, I know, it’s now pro forma that even job ads talk about “multi-tasking environments”. Unfortunately, this ends up mis-characterizing both the skill set sought and the results expected. It would be more accurate and realistic to emphasize the ability to “prioritize and manage” multiple tasks, not, as the implication flows, to actually perform¬†those tasks simultaneously. If you think about it, it’s obvious it can’t really be done; you can only do one thing at a time.

Even to those who take special (though questionably warranted, in my opinion) pride in their multi-tasking skills, it should be apparent that there is very likely to be a serious disconnect between doing lots of stuff “all at the same time” and doing those things “well”. It comes down to two aspects of attention; focus and shifting it. You can’t write a letter and have ¬†telephone conversation at the same time; you can only shift sporadically between the two. Does it make for a good letter and an engaging conversation? Unlikely.

There is one crucial difference between multi- and mono-taskers: Sustained attention for significant periods of time. It’s how good (and great) work gets done. Do you think Chet Atkins mastered his belief-defying licks while doing email, watching Judge Judy and listening to Jon Stewart? Of course not. He woodshedded to the exclusion of all other distractions. Same for almost anything worthwhile that you can think of.

I’m virtually never in the market for an employee, but when I am, it is high on my list of requirements that this person dispense with task-juggling displays and actually do the stuff that needs doing – well.

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