The Impact of Multi-tasking: Do One Thing Well or Two Things Poorly

As a former Navy SEAL, FBI Special Agent, and SWAT operator, I’ve fired countless rounds of ammunition from weapons. That type of repetition produces a certain amount of muscle memory to be sure, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But does an established muscle memory mean I can stop concentrating, or being in the moment, for each step of the process of, say, reloading my weapon? I want to talk to you about the negative impact of multi-tasking and why focus and staying in the moment is so important.

Let’s break it down.

Here are, in general, the steps one takes when reloading their handgun (If you are not a gun person, stay with me, you’ll eventually get where I’m going with this analogy).

  1. Upon recognizing my weapon has run out of bullets, or “gone dry,” I turn my weapon 90 degrees, keeping it at face level.
  2. I locate the magazine release button. (The “magazine” is the thing that holds the bullets and is held inside the handle of the weapon, aka “magazine well.”) 
  3. I press the magazine release button.
  4. I watch the magazine fall from the magazine well.
  5. I grab my spare magazine from my hip, and I watch it as I place it into the magazine well while keeping my weapon at face level.
  6. I press the slide release and watch the slide move forward, thereby chambering the round (bullet) and making it ready to fire.
  7. I properly re-grip my weapon.
  8. As I point the weapon back at my target, I acquire my front sights. 
  9. I place the fat part of the tip of my finger on the trigger.
  10.  I begin to squeeze the slack out of the trigger. 
  11.  I properly identify my target. 
  12.  I pull the rest of the slack out of the trigger and fire. 
  13.  I immediately re-acquire my front sight and determine if I need to fire again. 

This process takes probably 2-3 seconds for a seasoned shooter. Despite the speed with which this magazine change can be performed, the fact remains that these are all separate and distinct actions. Because these are separate and distinct actions, each action requires the shooter’s full attention to do it correctly. In other words, the shooter must be fully in the moment for each action to ensure the action is completed successfully. 

Even the best shooters get lazy and begin to multi-task and rely solely on muscle memory alone for this process. It’s understandable. In fact, the experienced shooter who relies on muscle memory may successfully complete this sequence of events to re-load their weapon 999 times out of 1000. These are pretty good odds!

But what happens when that one time you don’t successfully re-load is when you are in an actual gun fight and not on the range practicing? Does 999 out of 1000 sound good now? Nope, not so much. You are now 0 for 1 and have increased your chances of getting killed exponentially. Your strategy at this point is to hope your opponent isn’t good enough to take advantage of your mishap and shoot you dead. 

As Leaders, We Don’t Like Hope As a Strategy.

As leaders, we simply prefer to get it right.

The point is simple: why would you rely on muscle memory and risk getting it wrong one time when you can be assured you will get it right every time by being in the moment for each separate and distinct action? 

One of the best firearms instructors I’ve ever had says, “There is no such thing as multi-tasking. You can either do one thing really well or two things poorly.” If it is important enough to be in the moment on the battlefield when your life literally depends on it, then it is certainly worth considering during our day-to-day activities and interactions. 

What Happens When We Juggle Too Many Things At Once?

Typically, when we multi-task and quickly move from task to task to task our brain moves into a state of incoherence that triggers our fight or flight response, or our Sympathetic Nervous System. The Sympathetic Nervous System helps us in times of crisis to focus our energy. For example, if we were being chased by a Grizzly Bear, our Sympathetic Nervous System focuses our attention on survival: fight, flight, or hide. We don’t need to be thinking of anything else in this instance other than survival. All our natural bodily functions move their energy to our limbs to enhance our ability to run or otherwise survive. In instances like this, this is a good thing!

However, when we “multi-task” all day every day, we unnecessarily put our brain in a state of incoherence. We unnecessarily activate the fight or flight response of our Autonomic Nervous System. We unnecessarily narrow our focus on only what is right in front of our noses. We unnecessarily move energy from our core bodily functions (like digestion, circulation, and reproductive systems) to our extremities. And it becomes the behavior we are addicted to. When we are constantly in a state of fight or flight, like we are when we constantly move our focus and attention, our body moves to a state of “dis-ease.” Yes, we become sick, worn down, anxious, and otherwise moody and irritable. Not exactly great leadership traits.  

Conversely, when our brain is focused on one thing at a time, it relaxes and activates the rest and digestion, or Parasympathetic Nervous System. When our brain is relaxed, we view our surroundings from a wider lens. We can consider possibilities and create new opportunities. Internally, our autonomic systems (digestion, blood flow, reproductive systems, organ function) are operating normally and not unnecessarily stressing the body or sending it into “dis-ease.” We are healthier, stronger, happier, and clearer-headed because we are not letting the emotions of stress dominate our being. Don’t these traits feel more aligned with great leadership?

Consider the effects of the interactions you have as a leader when your brain is relaxed and open to every consideration. Consider the quality of your decisions when you can see the entire picture, not just what is in front of your nose for the short time you are considering options. 

Extrapolate the Principle Out to Your Personal Life

My premise is that these principles needed for battlefield success are transferable to every part of your life, both personally and professionally. Have you ever had a disagreement with your significant other because you weren’t paying attention? Maybe you were multi-tasking and focused on something else in the moment? Do you have those confrontations when you are truly listening to what is being said and responding with thought and measure? No, not likely. Now think back to the times you have been in your boss’ office or at a co-worker’s desk. Remember when they were talking to you and at the same time immersing themselves in their e-mail or something else on their computer that had nothing to do with you. How did that make you feel? Less than significant I imagine. And if it didn’t make you feel less than significant it’s because you have been conditioned to accept this behavior as normal and acceptable.

Apply the Principle to Leadership to Multi-Tasking

Too often, those in leadership positions feel they have the right to multi-task when someone is speaking to them. Maybe, as the boss, you believe you are hearing everything that is being said to you. Maybe you are giving good direction based on what you heard (or thought you heard), or maybe you are not. Because you have chosen to not be in the moment in the conversation, you can’t say for sure if you’ve missed anything. Perhaps you are hearing the words, but are you missing the non-verbal cues that so often tell us more about what is happening than the words themselves? Now you will make a leadership decision based on incomplete information. You are not situationally aware, or in the moment, and therefore the odds of your decision being a good decision have been left to chance. 

When we are in the moment with our conversations, we can recognize our own emotions and ensure our response is based on conscious thought, not on emotion. Having an emotional response is just like using muscle memory to change your weapon’s magazine; you are relying on hope to ensure it works.

Remember, we are talking about getting the interaction right by being in the moment. If we get the interaction right, then we are in a position to make the best decision because it will be a conscious decision based on a full knowledge of all the information at hand. We may get the decision wrong, but that’s ok because we will have been fully aware of our thought process and can then make adjustments going forward. 

Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coachingkeynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.

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