Normally, I use this blog forum to present moments of self reflection. The thought being, if I am going through this, most probably others are as well.  Further, the hope being, by publicly “airing this laundry”, collectively, progress will be made.

This week, I’m changing things up by publicly ‘airing a grievance’.  To be sure, nothing to the level of Frank Constanza and his favorite holiday Festivus, ‘Airing of Grievances’. Rather, illuminating a pet peeve which in my mind, is truly eroding the effectiveness of business meetings and rendering Teams or Zoom meetings essentially useless.

Generally speaking, the business world has adopted an omnipresent belief system that professes, ‘multitasking’ is a conduit to enhanced efficiency.  That indeed, we are capable of performing two separate tasks simultaneously leading to greater productivity.  

Where this now manifests itself and is the source of my personal pet peeve, is the practice of returning emails or chat messages during meetings.  In other words, providing the pretense of engagement and focus in a meeting while simultaneously returning emails.

I would highly recommend anyone reading this to google “Is Multitasking Possible?” What explodes in this search is page after page of scientifically conducted studies, all of which arrive at the same conclusion.

NO!  You cannot multitask!

Chris Adams, an expert in the field of Ergonomics (the study of how humans effectively interact with their work environment) writes:

The cerebral cortex handles the brain's "executive controls." Those controls, divided into two stages, organize the brain's tasks processing.

The first is ‘goal shifting’. This happens when you switch your focus from one task to another.

The second stage is ‘rule’ activation. This turns off the rules (how the brain completes a given task) for the previous task and turns on the rules for the new task.

So, when you think you are multitasking you are actually switching your goals and turning the respective rules on and off in rapid succession. The switches are fast (tenths of a second) so you may not notice them, but those delays and the loss of focus can add up.  

And there it is.  Multitasking, as a turbo charge of efficiency is a myth. Our brains are not capable of executing the task.  We simply switch from one task to another and with each switch, become more overwhelmed, less engaged and more inefficient.  

Cynthia Kubu PhD Neuropsychology sites specific studies that crystalize these findings:

So-called multitasking divides our attention. It makes it harder for us to give our full attention to one thing. For example, studies attempting to complete additional tasks during a driving simulation led to poorer driving performance.  Other studies suggest that people who frequently “media multitask” (like listening to music while checking email or scrolling through social media while watching a movie) are more distracted and less able to focus their attention even when they’re performing only one task.

Which begs the question, if we are seeing less effectiveness of our coworkers in their attempts to multitask, and experiencing the same latency in our own performance by accepting multiple stimuli simultaneously, why do we continue to perpetuate the myth?  

Put more succinctly Why do we continue to try?

Paul Atchley, Ph.D. associate professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kansas explains:

Our brains are wired to respond strongly to social messaging, whether it is verbal or non-verbal. Knowing and improving our status, expanding awareness of our group, is important to us, and as a result information that helps us do that is often processed automatically, no matter what else we are trying to focus on.  

In other words, we quite literally can’t help ourselves.  We are hard wired to accept information and stimulus and feel a compulsion to engage.  The exact same compulsion that Social Media providers exploit perpetually.  Notifications, pop-ups, text messages, disseminated in perpetuity until the user succumbs with ‘lemming like submission’.  

So, if indeed we cannot beat it.  We are, (to use another Seinfeld reference) incapable of becoming “Master of our Domain”, then we need to self regulate.  

For in person meetings, collectively agree as a group, to turn off cell phones and contain the use of laptops and tablets to note taking.  As much as you may think you are hearing what is being said while you are returning an email or responding to a text, you are not.  Your mind is engaged in the task at hand.  Moreover, your mind rarely returns to the meeting at the moment you hit send.  You continue to ruminate over the quality of your response or reflect on the initial request.  Either way, your focus is unengaged from the meeting that you are attending.

For virtual Teams or Zoom meeting, turn off ALL forms of notifications and pop ups and close down other open tabs.  For heaven’s sake, at the very least acknowledge a blatant truth; you are on camera!  It is easy to see you when your body language moves forward and your arms are clearly in typing position.  At that same instant, it is known you are no longer a part of this meeting.  Meaning, the meeting no longer has value.  It is an exercise in futility wasting corporate dollars and valuable time.  

In writing this I fully recognize the herculean hurdle of implementing these policies.  As an Executive Partner, I certainly would not want to be the one to either suggest or enforce this mandate.  Similarly, I would be sympathetic to the team manager promulgating this new workplace ‘best practice’.  But, I do think that an open conversation about the values of focus and the detrimental effects of constant notification bombardments is a fair conversation.  

Look, something needs to change.  At the very least, make it a personal pledge.  Turning off phones and email notifications are the perfect starting point.  

The cost of complacency is only increasing.


Clive Cholerton
Executive Partner,
Q Wealth Partners