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I have wasted a lot of time in my professional life sitting in conference rooms with people who appear to be doing many activities but are focusing on none. They claim to be multitasking, but I call it multifaking.
I used to pride myself on my ability to multitask, but the word has become such a mockery of itself that it's impossible to use seriously any more. How many times do I have to repeat myself to someone who claims to be multitasking before they understand that, if this were true, instead of repeating myself I would be listening to their well-reasoned reply?
Trying to explain a problem to a colleague for the fifth time while he checked his mail and insisted "I'm listening," I started multitasking myself, thinking about a different person in a different room: my mother in her kitchen.
My mom is a chef and can effortlessly host a multicourse dinner for 20. She knows when to start each dish so they will all be ready at the same time, when to add a key ingredient, when to whip, when to chop and when to set the dough aside to rise.
She never seems rushed, and she never does more than one thing at a time.
Multitasking is not, at its heart, about doing many things at the same time, but rather doing singular things on multiple parallel tracks, switching from task to task as priority warrants. Or, as my mother might say, "add the salt now," then "stir in the cream" and then "turn the heat down."
In cooking, there is always something coming next, so the most important habit of the true multitasker is to finish the current task crisply so you can switch to the next. You have to be focused on the current task, but not lost in it. You do it, and you know exactly what you need to do next.
What I see in the corporate office world is a kind of ongoing smear of activities that never grab anyone’s complete attention for even a moment, and never quite get done. Everyone has “so much to do,” and it’s tempting to dump it all into the same pot and stew on it together. Round and round we all stir the pot, throwing in leftovers and turning the heat up or down. The results are missed details, slipped deadlines and half-baked projects – all for the lack of those crucial moments of undivided attention.
Meetings are the worst – so much time wasted because five people can’t pay attention to the same thing for the same five minutes. A pitch and a decision don’t have to take hours, unless those hours are actually not spent on the pitch or decision but on cruising around in the general vicinity.
As my mother works moment by moment to put on her dinners, there is a shocking immediacy in what happens if she fails to switch her attention correctly – pots boil over, meat dries out, rice burns.
In her kitchen, she lives in the moment with a vision of the future that ensures the appetizers will be perfectly timed for her guests’ arrival (factoring in the perpetually late couple). She constantly adjusts her estimations, reprioritizes her tasks and optimizes her steps – including the small ones in the middle of each task, where somehow the counter is cleaned and the pots are washed, so that the kitchen is sparkling just as dinner is served.
There must surely be some higher-level guiding intelligence with an overview of the whole system, but the way it looks when I watch it – and feels when I do it – is like a beautiful state of flow, of being in the moment fully. Which seems paradoxical, because the most essential part of the whole operation happens at the end – the meal is served on time.
True multitasking and deadlines go hand in hand – the reason you are multitasking is to get four, five or six different work streams to completion at the same time. This is perhaps the key difference between multitasking and multifaking – multitasking is intentional. Reading the latest text that came to you while browsing the Internet and listening in on a conference call is not intentional, and it has no deadline.
My mother’s sense of time and its slices runs in her head constantly. She doesn’t use a timer in the kitchen because it would be redundant. Her inner clock runs even when she’s not cooking: At 8 p.m., after we’ve enjoyed our postdinner cup of tea, she’ll excuse herself to go down and pull meat from the freezer for tomorrow’s lunch. As soon as the breakfast dishes are cleared, she is mentally running through the dietary concerns of the people coming for dinner.
She is like my admired colleague who can work a technical problem, then prepare for and be fully present at the budget review, and then gracefully mentor a troubled employee. Never rushed, never last-minute and always present.
As I sit in the boardroom thinking about my mother in her kitchen, waiting for this struggling employee to check his e-mail, I can’t help thinking that if some of my colleagues made meals the way they do projects, they would refuse to eat them.
If they were chefs, these problems would be impossible to deny. You can’t argue with a fallen soufflé.
Chantel Boyd lives in Toronto.