The Limits of Multi-Tasking: Living and Working in the Present

Making a commitment to the here and now requires focused concentration and dedication to the human interaction going on in any activity – whether it is a class, a staff or board meeting, or a gathering of community leaders.

By Stephen G. Donshik

Most of us who work within the Jewish nonprofit sector find ourselves spending most of our professional careers multi-tasking. Often we juggle as many as ten different tasks at the same time. For example, we might be responsible for handling our own assignments, working with other staff on special projects, supervising staff members and/or student interns, working with volunteer leadership on board committees, and even reaching out to the community as a liaison with other agencies.

If we have been able to be successful in working this way, we have become accustomed to pacing ourselves and learning how to focus on the task at hand while keeping an eye on our other responsibilities. We have learned how to use our professional radar to always survey our responsibilities and to keep track of what we have to accomplish during the day, the next day, and the next week, month, or year. These skills have been developed over time and are continually honed over the course of our careers.

However, there are certain limits to multi-tasking, and it is crucial that we understand them so that not only our work but also the people we work with in a variety of settings and relationships do not suffer. I became cognizant of the problems of multi-tasking over the last few years while teaching graduate students. We not only need to be more aware of the limits of multi-tasking in our own work but also be willing to set limits for those we engage with either in working or learning together.

My recent teaching experiences have reinforced for me the importance of understanding the limits of multi-tasking. In the graduate classes I teach at Hebrew University, the students invariably pull out their computers for the ostensible purpose of taking notes. Yet I have noticed over the years that students also surf the net and check e-mails throughout the class. I am always struck by the notion that if they were in other situations, and were trying both to listen to others and be on the Internet at the same time, they could not possibly give their full attention to the conversation or the interpersonal dynamics going on around them.

What makes this multi-tasking particularly problematic in my classes is that they focus not only on the subject matter but also on the process taking place during each session. There is no way that students who are focused on their computer screen and responding to e-mails can be fully involved in the discussion and interaction taking place in the class. I have been told an innumerable number of times that young people today can multi-task without a problem and without losing sight of what is happening around them. Yet after teaching for a number of years and allowing the use of these electrical devices in class, I do not believe that statement is true. Instead, I believe strongly that the students who are focusing on their hi-tech devices and the class process at the same time are missing out on one of those activities.

Making a commitment to the here and now requires focused concentration and dedication to the human interaction going on in any activity – whether it is a class, a staff or board meeting, or a gathering of community leaders. If one of these activities’ goals is to create a shared process that involves a number of people, how can that process be achieved if some or all of the people in the group are busy texting message, writing e-mails, or surfing the internet?

Of course, in such gatherings, it is sometimes advantageous for a group member to look up specific information related to the group discussion. This is often done to inform the issue(s) being considered and deliberated. However, there is a big difference between searching for information that will enhance the interaction among the meeting participants and having participants mentally checking out of the discussion because they are involved in an e-mail conversation with someone outside the group or class.

Living in the life space of the moment means engaging fully with others; it means sharing yourself with others and others sharing themselves with you. It is difficult to accomplish this when a dynamic is set up that is distracting to one or more of the participants. We should be committed to having an authentic process between and among people and not listening with half an ear.

I wonder how many agency executives in nonprofit organizations would permit electronic devices to be used by individual staff members in a meeting of the staff or volunteer leaders. It is not just an issue of the lack of courtesy shown for others; allowing the use of electronic devices also creates a dysfunctional situation because people have withdrawn from the group process. Multi-tasking means handling any number of different responsibilities simultaneously, but it should not mean creating a situation where people are not really engaged with one another.

The nature of the communication that takes place in a nonprofit organization should be a reflection of that agency’s culture. We should all strive to ensure that we speak to each other and respond with a full sense of taking in the other person and not be distracted by our use of electronic devices. This will strengthen not only the organization but also the commitment of the professional and volunteer leaders to it.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.