The Multi-Tasking Myth: Lunch with Roberta Oster Sachs

Multi-tasking has been a talent listed on my resume for years…it’s one of my hot words when it comes to how I “do it all.” This buzz word has been the super star employee that HR managers hunt for, the dream team “must-have” for any busy department. But as it turns out, multi-tasking might just be a myth. What?! Thanks to the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce Professional Women’s Leadership Luncheon Series and the brilliant mind of Roberta Oster Sachs, I recently learned an important lesson that has me removing “multi-tasking” from my vocabulary and replacing it with a new word – “mindfulness.”

The Multi-tasking Myth

For her presentation “The Power of Mindfulness: Grow Your Business and Enhance Your Life,” Roberta Oster Sachs had us complete a simple exercise with two parts. First, we had to write “I am a great multi-tasker” and then second, we had to write the numbers 1-20. Most of us finished in about 20 seconds.

Then she had us do the exercise again. Except this time, we had to alternate between the two tasks. Meaning, we had to write “I” and then “1” and then “a” and “2” and “m” and “3,” and so on and so forth. Easy, right? Well, most of us fabulous, multi-tasking rock stars took a whopping 3-4 times longer to complete the same exercise with this new method. Multi-tasking didn’t just slow us down, it crippled us.

The Multi-tasking Myth

She challenged us to admit that the mind is a one lane road, and that we must stop the “always on,” information overload to become truly effective. Managing our attention contributes to overall success, better health and peace of mind. But how do we get there?

By following two simple rules, you can rebuild the multi-tasking brain into a mindful one.

  • Set a time frame to focus on whatever you choose. 
    • She used the example of writing an email. She allotted 20 minutes to write the email.
  • Choose your distractions mindfully. 
    • These circumstances were ignored – phone ringing, office gossip, online notifications.
    • This scenario was attended to – boss requesting immediate help for a crisis.

Roberta Oster Sachs rounded out her presentation with the mental, practical and social requirements to put multi-tasking forever to bed, embracing mindfulness and managed attention. Another three simple steps and we are well on our way!

  • Determine your priorities and develop a disciplined routine that allots appropriate time and resources to complete tasks.
  • Set healthy boundaries that allow you to remain focused and within your routine.
  • Communicate those boundaries to the important people in your life.

How might this work in the email example above? If you’ve decided that email needs to get answered, then you first set the routine. I’m going to take the next 20 minutes to respond to this email. Then, you set boundaries that allow you to move through that routine. Maybe you close your door, put your phone on “do not disturb,” and close any open applications. You would also have to communicate those boundaries to the important people in your life (your team). “Hey guys, I have an important email to answer. I’m going to go ahead and close my door and work on for the next 20 minutes or so. Please don’t interrupt me unless it’s an emergency, ok? Thanks!”

Working Mom Small Business Rules

This all goes right back to Kim Buck’s book on setting healthy boundaries. It’s a theme I’m hearing over and over again lately. And as I’m just about 5 weeks into working from home, I’m realizing a mindful life isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Multi-tasking is not my friend. It breeds anxiety, exhaustion, mistakes and now we see, lower productivity. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Moral of the story - Focus. One step at a time. And create the environment for yourself that allows you to manage your attention, communicating your expectations to your world.

Bonus moral! Constantly get out and about to engage and learn from other successful women who have gone before you. As a working mom and small business owner, sometimes moving at anything other than the speed of light doesn’t feel like an option, and chaos will always be the name of the game. Having the opportunity to hear a strong leader like Roberta Oster Sachs remind me to be mindful was a powerful lesson and lifesaver. Don’t miss out on the chance to learn and grow!


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