Partial-Attention “Multitasking”

Teaching a seminar not long ago, I commented that texting while driving was a clear example of the failure of multitasking. A very bright senior lawyer said, “But sometimes you have to.” (Even her workaholic colleagues looked askance at that!)

No, you don’t have to. Ever.

You know it’s a bad idea, right?

It’s easy to recognize in this example that a texting driver is dividing her attention, paying attention sometimes to the cars around her and attention at other times to her smartphone. Perhaps the text message does require only part of her attention (though even that’s unclear, according to researchers).

However, when driving requires your attention, you must attend to it now, not when you happen to look up from your smartphone.

Partial attention on the road can kill you.

(Or me.)

Experienced drivers allow certain aspects of driving to become background tasks. Our brain filters uninteresting events. (What color was the car on your right 30 seconds ago?) Without conscious thought we subtly adjust the wheel to stay in lane or follow a curve in the road. But the moment an “interesting” situation takes shape, such as a car swerving from the adjoining lane, we focus full attention on it.

We focus full attention… as long as our core attention isn’t elsewhere.

Studies show that we can divide attention only as long as non-foreground tasks are routine and repetitive – and only when we remain alert to changes in situation. A braking car while driving, another pedestrian while walking: we avoid them easily if we’re alert, but we fail when we’re looking at a cell phone (or map or book) while the situation changes.

We pay but partial attention.

We do not multitask; we context-switch, focusing for a few seconds on one task and then for a few seconds on another. If the second task demands our attention while we’re working on the first, we respond ineffectively.

We know it’s the wrong way to drive.

It’s also an ineffective way to get work done, no matter how much we fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

Lawyers are paid, directly or indirectly, for their time. Clients deserve full value for that time; I doubt anyone would seriously question that position.

So give them – and yourself – full value. Stop trying to multitask. Give each task its full-on focus, and when it’s done, do the same for the next task.

Not only will you deliver more value, research shows you’ll actually get more done each day.

(Shameless plug: My new book is The Off Switch: Discovering Your Work-Work Balance, from which most of this article is excerpted. Pick up a copy when it’s released in January and learn the whole story, including why doing less at any one instant will lead to accomplishing more across the entire day.)


  1. This is timely, Steven. The New York Times reported a couple of days ago on a doctor who imperilled a patient because of multi-tasking on her mobile phone: