The job skill everyone asks for – and no one should want

Posted on June 3, 2010


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I’ve read a lot of job descriptions in many industries and for many different types of positions.  I’ve written a few, too.

Many of those job descriptions (but not mine!) have one requirement in common.

Do you know what it is?

Multitasking.  (Give yourself a pat on the back if you knew)

Every employer wants an employee who can manage three important tasks simultaneously, who can handle hundreds of emails, dozens of phone calls and face-to-face meetings – preferably simultaneously, without blinking an eye.  (for if one blinked, the house of cards might fall)

I’ve got a few skills that are conducive to multitasking: I can read and type pretty quickly, I’m smarter than the average bear, and I can pat my head while rubbing my belly.  On a good day I can walk and chew gum simultaneously.  Does this make me a good employee?

When I worked at the Big Company, there came a time when Blackberries were distributed to all the Big Wigs, and the seminal moment of Big Wigginess was the moment one could pull out one’s Blackberry and make a show of reviewing all of the Extremely Important Messages contained therein.  Eventually the never-ending crush of messages forced Big Wigs to review their Blackberries during Important Meetings, and you could measure the value of a meeting by the number of Big Wigs attending and managing emails while participating in the meeting.  Meetings became the very essence of multitasking and productivity.

Or not.

When I attempt to multitask, I read so fast that I skim, I type like a madwoman, and I answer questions like a sleepwalker.

Oh multitasking!  I’m so good at multitasking that I can do it all!!

Or can I?

This is the subtle allure of multitasking.  If you have the basic skill sets to multitask, you tell yourself that you’ll do it all.

If you can do it all, there’s no need to prioritize, no need to choose, no need to turn anything down.

Being good at multitasking means never having to say no.

But wait – is there any value in being able to say no?  Is there any advantage in being able to weigh the costs and benefits of a decision, of advocating for a position (and against another), and of leading the tough conversation about a difficult decision?

If you’re still with me, let’s hold hands and set a new social convention, a convention against multitasking.

  • Let’s admit to having limits.
  • Let’s say NO to things we want – in favor of even better things we want more.
  • Let’s admit: I am NOT good at multitasking.
  • So I will NOT agree to check my emails at home, while spending ‘quality’ time with my kids.
  • I will NOT do research on the internet while sitting in a meeting.
  • I will NOT read a memo while talking to you on the phone.

Does this make me a bad employee?

Well, in return for accepting my non-multitasking self, here’s what my employer gets:

  • 100% of my attention during work hours
  • 100% engagement during my (much shorter) meetings
  • Active thinking and energetic brainstorming
  • An occasional “No” – with a thoughtful explanation of why “No” makes sense

What do you all think about multitasking?  Does your boss expect you to multitask?  Did your job description include multitasking?


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