The Fallacy of Multitasking

The Fallacy of Multitasking

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By Dan Coughlin

Two weeks ago I gave a full-day seminar at the Washington University Olin Business School. 36 full-time executives from 24 different organizations made up the class. We were discussing one of my favorite topics, focus and sacrifice, when a woman raised her hand and said, “You’re talking about the fallacy of multitasking.

Right away my ears perked up. I loved the sound of that. I asked her to explain what she meant

She said, “The fallacy of multitasking is convincing ourselves that we can do two things at the same time. It’s not true. It leads into all kinds of issues.

I said, “I love that. It sounds like my next article. Thank you.

This fallacy leads into so many problems. We miss important information, we put our lives in danger, we certainly hurt relationships in all areas of our lives, and we become less productive.

Here are four examples:

On a conference call with multiple people you are checking your emails. Then you start to speak up on the call and people realize that you weren’t paying attention at all. Just a wee bit embarrassing, huh?

Life in danger. Driving and texting. People are ten times more likely to die or be seriously injured when driving and texting than when they are driving and drinking. People are stunned whenever they hear about one of these accidents. Why? Isn’t it obvious that if you’re looking away from the road and your car is moving that something bad is going to happen?

Relationships are damaged. I fell into a bad habit with a great friend of mine. Somehow I convinced myself I could keep doing my work while talking with him. Once he said, “Wow, that is loud.” I said, “What is loud?” He said, “The typing you’re doing while you’re talking to me.” It hit me instantly how rude I was being. I’ve learned to turn away from my computer when I’m talking with him.

Watching a sporting event on tv while trying to write a report is a losing proposition. It will take you four times longer to finish the report and it will be filled with errors. How are you gaining by doing that? You’re less productive, you’re more prone to mistakes, and you haven’t enjoyed either the game or the report.

Please stop fooling yourself. You really truly cannot do two different things simultaneously and do either of them well.

Newton’s Fourth Law should say, “No person can effectively do two different things at the same time.”

Please believe that.

Prioritize what you are going to do today. Then do those tasks one at a time. Focus on the task you’re doing. Don’t do anything else. Then move to the next task and focus on doing that. Give each task you do your full attention. Steadily, task by task, you will achieve more than if you tried to do multiple things at the same time.

Take Time to Learn, Reflect, and Reenergize

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By Dan Coughlin                                                    

January 3 – March 15

April 1 – July 1

August 15 – December 15

It seems to me that the vast majority of work happens in segments of about 70-120 days each. There seems to be a consistent cycle year after year. Those dates might differ depending on where you live and where you work, but it does seem to me that three times a year we rev ourselves up to go all out and work intensely, and then we start to slow down and reenergize.

Daily, Weekly, and Monthly Breaks

The problem with this approach is we put ourselves on a cycle of not focusing on ourselves. When we’re in “work mode” we push ourselves to the absolute limit. We get tired, and so we eat poorly to manufacture “energy” that doesn’t really last through the day so we eat badly again.

We’re pushing ourselves as hard as we can at work, and then we come home and we are tremendously busy with our family and community commitments. We want to make a difference, and we want to do a good job at work and at home and in our communities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is we save no time for ourselves to learn, to reflect, and to reenergize. Quite literally years can go by like the waves in the ocean. High waves are all-out work. Low waves are a week to go on a vacation or do stuff around the house that needs to be done. Then back to the high waves of all-out work and family and community involvement.

In order to make the next high wave better than the last high wave, we need to build in regular pockets of time during the busy times to learn, to reflect, and to reenergize.

Here are five suggestions for you to consider doing during your busiest work days:

Read five pages a day. Choose any book that you think might be of value to you. Every day sit and read five pages without taking a break. Just read. If you really want to take that even deeper, buy a blank journal. When you are done reading, go to your journal, write in that day’s date, and write down one or two things you learned from your reading. This entire activity is less than 10 minutes. Do it before you go to bed at night.

Three times a week do something for your physical health. Eat healthy for one whole day. Go for a walk. Go to a gym. Do an activity for fun. Move. Anything for your physical health.

Watch a movie just for fun. Watch your favorite tv show. Allow stress to go away. Allow energy to come back.

Get a massage.

Take an online course just to develop your mind, not for a certificate or a degree. Don’t do it to impress your boss or get a raise. Just take a course for your own development as a human being and as a professional.

This is the time of the year when we are going all out at work, but what helps us to learn, develop, and reenergize in order to be better on the next climb up the mountain. If we never take time to focus on ourselves, how will we ever be better in our future performances?

Challenge Ourselves for the Sake of Challenging Ourselves

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By Dan Coughlin                                                 

What is the point of challenging ourselves to be better than we are right now?

We’ve worked our whole lives to be as good as we are today. What’s the benefit of pushing ourselves to be better than we are today.


Over the past 20 years 95% of my work has been with people who work in for-profit organizations. 5% of my work, and usually this is done on a pro bono basis, has been done for not-for-profit organizations. And then every once in a great while something totally different comes my way.

On January 18, 2018 I was invited by Coach Ben Rosario to do my full-day seminar on “Achieving Individual and Team Excellence” for his team, HOKA ONE ONE NAZ Elite. His team consists of ten professional long-distance runners who work full-time at training for 5K, 10K, and marathon races. The ultimate goal is to prepare for the 2020 Olympic Trials to represent the U.S. in the Tokyo Olympics.

On the day of the seminar the group had a “light” workout before the seminar started. The main part of the workout included 3 one-mile reps and 3 800-meter reps at a fast pace. All told they ran 10 miles on the day. In 20 years of doing seminars for organizations I’ve never had a group who went for a 10-mile run before sitting down for a full-day seminar with me.

As we went through the many different exercises on reflecting, writing, and discussing the various aspects of individual and team excellence, certain patterns began to emerge. I realized that these professional runners were not driven by money or fame. They shared the common cause of pushing themselves individually and collectively just to see what they could achieve. They personified the idea of working for excellence.

I define excellence as doing the best you can at whatever you do while simultaneously learning how to do it better the next time. Excellence is not a moment in time. It’s an on-going process.

As they worked for excellence each day in their training they continually expanded their understanding of themselves and what they were capable of achieving. They challenged themselves for the sake of challenging themselves in order to see what they could achieve in the future.

Along the way they have become representatives of excellence. And that is why they are great representatives of the HOKA ONE ONE running shoe brand.

What if each of us took that idea and applied it in our work? What if we challenged ourselves to be better than we are today in order to represent the concept of excellence? Wouldn’t we then be stronger brand representatives for our organization and our work teams and our families? Wouldn’t our capacity to perform at a higher level be greater in the future? Wouldn’t we enrich our sense of self-esteem and personal dignity? Isn’t this what makes work worth doing beyond just receiving a paycheck?

Leonardo da Vinci

As I was flying to and from Flagstaff, Arizona to speak to the HOKA ONE ONE NAZ Elite team, I was reading the book, Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson.

Da Vinci was obsessed with learning. He wrote in his private journals all that he was learning about painting, military weapons, engineering, brains, hearts, spinal cords, mirrors, birds, flight, hydraulics, and on and on. Every day was about excellence. He wanted to know more, and he wanted to learn how to be better at learning more. At first he did it all through experiments. Then he added reading to learn what others knew. Then he combined the theories of other people with observation and more experiments. And all throughout his more than 50 years of actively studying and learning and expanding his knowledge he kept pushing himself to learn and to understand more.


It was excellence that was driving him. He wasn’t focused on turning his learnings into major commercial success. He was driven to learn. He accepted commissions for his paintings to pay his bills, but his primary driver was excellence in learning.

Recently one of his paintings sold for over $450 Million. I can’t even wrap my mind around that, except to think that the customer wanted to somehow buy the concept of excellence. It doesn’t work that way. If we want excellence in our lives, we have to be the one doing the best we can while simultaneously learning how to be better the next time.

Leonardo da Vinci was not wealthy financially, but if you consider excellence to be a part of a person’s treasure, then he was extraordinarily wealthy when he died.

Tom Brady

Tom Brady has been remarkably wealthy and incredibly well-known for many years. He does not need fame or fortune any more. He has them. But here he is at 40 years old pushing himself to succeed in a brutally violent sport.

Why? Why? Why?

It is the daily challenge of excellence that underlies his amazing performances.

Why should we challenge ourselves to be better than we are right now? Why shouldn’t we allow ourselves to just coast along? Why can’t we just be satisfied with where we are right now? We’ve all achieved a certain level of success in our lives. Why not just kick back and relax and stop reaching for excellence on a daily basis?

Walt Whitman wrote, “That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

The powerful play goes on, and we all have an opportunity to contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Status quo or excellence.


If You Take Money Out of the Equation, How Do You Measure Success?

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I’ve often heard this statement: that person has a really good job. Or this one: that person has a great job.

Those statements are code for meaning that person either makes a really good salary or a really great salary. Whenever I hear that I always think to myself that there has to be more to a really good job or a really great job than just making money. There has to be more to being a great organization than just how big the organization is financially.

Money is important. It’s important for individuals and it’s important for businesses. However, it can become so important that it can overshadow everything else in terms of defining success. We have to be able to peel back the layers of important outcomes in order to understand factors other than money.

Questions for Measuring Success with Money Not in the Equation

Here are three questions I want you to reflect on.

First, if you take your financial compensation out of the equation, how do you define success for yourself at work?

What would you use to determine your success if you don’t know what you’re being paid?

You might consider the quality of your work, the impact you had on other team members and on your customers and suppliers, and what you learned that day to improve the future of your organization. You might consider your professional relationships, and think about what you do to enhance a relationship or start up a new one. What would you use to evaluate your success without including money?

Second, if you take your organization’s revenues and profits out of the equation, how do you define success for your organization?

If you don’t know whether or not revenues and profits are going up or down, what would you use as indicators of success as an organization? Peel back the layers.

You might evaluate whether the products and services that are being sold are getting better or worse. You might measure success based on the results that your customers achieve when they use your products or services. You might measure whether your organization did what it said it would do for employees, customers, and suppliers. What would you look at?

Third, if you take the things you can buy out of the equation, how do you define success in your personal and community life?

Let’s extend these questions beyond your job and your employer, and look at success at home or in your community.

What would have to happen today for you to consider this to be a successful day?

For me, it includes showing my family members and telling my family members that I love them. It includes spending some time in nature and some time in exercising. It includes learning something either through reading or watching a film. For you, how will you determine if a day was successful or not if you take out what you can buy?

You can put money back in later on as an indicator of success, but for now I would like you to answer those three questions. Success has many layers of evaluation. We need to dig deep to get past just using money as our sole indicator of success.