A Royall Juggle

Personal #2: Multi-tasking isn’t cool

Posted on: October 11, 2010

The closing keynote at my company Forum last month, Dan Clark, gave one of the best speeches, or should I say oratories, that I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing (thanks to Georgetown Professor Mike Long, I now know the difference between the two). To engage the audience, Dan asked everyone to raise their hand if they think they are a good multi-tasker. About 25% of the audience proudly raised their hand (including me) and then the punch line… “You just admitted to being really good at doing a lot of things bad.”

Like most of the points in Dan’s oratory, he wasn’t telling us something we didn’t already know – he was just reminding us of the obvious (which surprisingly, we sometimes forget when to-do lists and stress start to take over).

The juggler story

Dan went on to tell a story about a juggler. When he asked a juggler, “How could you possibly juggle all eight balls in the air at once without letting one fall?”, the juggler replied “Because I’m only holding one ball at a time.” What he meant was that most of us have a lot to juggle in life, but if we don’t give our full attention to what we are doing at the moment, one or more of the balls could drop. We all know we can’t be at more than one place at a time physically, but since many of us live in a fast-paced world, we try to be at more than one place at a time mentally so we can finish that to-do list or fit it all in one day (one could argue the “fast-paced world” is a perception usually based on where you live and who you hang out with which I can relate as I grew up a country girl and have since migrated to the city).

On the topic of sleeping in, my boyfriend’s dad jokingly says “Don’t let them get ahead of you son.” Although he may be joking to some extent, I think competitiveness is what motivates a lot of people to multi-task. Other possible reasons: there are some things that we don’t think are worthy of our full attention and sometimes we have a hard time deciphering what’s truly important and focusing in on that.

Regardless of our motivation to multi-task, the problem with it is that people recognize when you are fully engaged or not, as referenced in Cluetrain Manifesto, Chapter Three: Talk is Cheap. One of my pet peeves is when I’m out with my friends and some of them are looking down at their BlackBerry or iPhone every few minutes. It’s hard enough to get my girlfriends from college all together since our lives are pulled in so many different directions, but when it actually works out, we can’t go a couple of hours without checking to see if we are missing something else! I always call people out for that and remind them of the message it sends (yes, I am guilty sometimes too).

I’m not saying that all types of multi-tasking is bad (I am at my boyfriend’s condo right now watching the Eagles game while I’m writing this post – Eagles football is something I can usually zone out pretty well unless they are playing the Cowboys), but I do think we should take some time to reflect on Dan’s juggler story when we start to feel overwhelmed. Whether it’s missing a meeting at work, losing touch with an old friend, or forgetting a family member’s birthday; we only have so many hours in the day and when we try to focus on too many things at once, something is bound to drop.

A wedding lesson we could all learn from

I just got home from a wedding this weekend in Williamsburg where the preacher gave advice that related to the points Dan made. Before the preacher started the ceremony, he unexpectedly asked the bride and groom to turn around to the audience in the church and look around. He told them to take in one of the most important moments in their life, “Look at all the people in the crowd who have been major influences in your lives and have helped guide you to where you are today. Appreciate them and remember their faces when you go through the best and the worst times in the future.” Then he reminded the bride and groom to always focus on what’s truly important, “This relationship is worth fighting for.” Although the preacher was offering this advice to the couple at the front of the altar, it resonated with me as well.

When we don’t feel like there are enough hours in the day and we are wearing ourselves too thin, maybe that’s the time to take a step back and think about how we are spending our time. Decide what’s truly important, spend more time nurturing those things and begin to zone out unimportant distractions. What’s worth fighting for in your life?

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