The Real Costs of Persistent Multitasking: 9 Tips to Minimize Damage

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who can’t concentrate when people around me tap away on their tablets as though no one else at the meeting notices. Do these people even realize how distracting and disrespectful their behavior can be? Or do they just not notice or care? Or maybe I just don’t get that multitasking is a requirement for some people to manage their increasingly busy lives, and I should cut them some slack. (Or maybe the people furiously typing into their devices are taking notes or looking up some vital information on the web. Highly doubtful, but possible.)

While teaching a facilitation skills workshop recently, a question about how best to handle multitasking set off a passionate and polarizing discussion. Some felt that multitasking is a fact of life that we as meeting leaders just have to learn how to live with. Others felt just as strongly that ubiquitous multitasking inhibits productive conversations, and that meeting leaders must find diplomatic ways to make it stop. In the end, people agreed that as an organization, they need consistent operating norms about multitasking, which need to be clearly communicated and reinforced. (Of course, everyone acknowledged that certain exceptions may call for different approaches.)

For this month’s Communiqué, I decided to dive into this contentious and complicated issue, focusing primarily on face-to-face meetings. (See my Communiqué  To Keep People Focused, Insist That They Multitask  for virtual meeting tips. See my Communiqué archive for dozens of more related articles.) My thanks to the Professional Facilitators Group on LinkedIn for starting a terrific thread on the topic.

  • First, determine whether you believe multitasking will detract from the conversation. Even if you aren’t especially bothered by it, consider the effect this may have on other meeting participants. The extent to which multitasking may be tolerated depends on your objectives, participant mix, demographics, organizational culture, duration of meeting, intensity and importance of the needed conversation, and other factors. Consider whether certain kinds of multitasking might contribute to the meeting outcome, such as note-taking, researching vital information, or messaging an absent colleague for input. Think this through carefully, and decide what stance you want to take. If you plan to request 100% participation (i.e. no multitasking), you need to lay the groundwork ahead of time so there are no surprises. (And even then, not everyone may agree!)
  • Gain agreement with your sponsor as to the ground rules right up front. (This assumes that you believe that multitasking, for the most part, will get in the way of a productive conversation.) Is this a ground rule that people in this organization are used to? Are they likely to abide by it? What exceptions should we be prepared to make? Be clear about the ground rules you have in mind, and ask your sponsor if they seem reasonable. If so, ask for her support in modeling the right behavior and backing you up if you need to call on the reinforcements.
  • Give participants a heads-up. In your communications leading up the meeting, let people know that their focused attention will be needed during the meeting, and ask that they schedule their time accordingly. Inform them that there will be plenty of breaks so people realize they will have a chance to return calls, emails, IMs, etc. (It’s never a good idea to catch people by surprise with a “no multitasking” ground rule at the start of the meeting, especially if they planned to catch up on email in the back of the room!) If you know that some people are habitual offenders, try contacting them directly to let them know how important their perspectives are, and ask if they can schedule their time to give the conversation their full attention. Of course, how you word this will depend on your relationship with these people, their roles, etc. You might also consider asking them to take on a role, such as timekeeper or scribe, to keep them so busy they won’t have time to multitask.)
  • State the ground rule at the start. Different people have different ways of asking people not to multitask, and much depends on the context. I usually write something like “100% participation is required,” and draw an image of a smartphone and laptop with a big red circle and slash through it. Then I explain my rationale for suggesting this ground rule: “All of you were carefully selected to be part of this conversation for your valuable perspectives and ideas. For us to achieve our goals in the allotted time, we need your full participation. I know that all of you are giving up a lot to be here today, and that’s why it’s so important that we make the most of our time together. You’re all incredibly busy, and probably juggle many competing priorities. While you’re in this room today, I’m asking that you put those other priorities aside, so we can take advantage of your best thinking. As much as we like to think we can be productively engaged in multiple conversations at once, in reality our brains don’t work this way.” (Smile!) And keep in mind, multitasking can be really distracting to those around us, even when they’re pretending it doesn’t bother them. And once someone starts, the behavior tends to go viral.” (Smile!) “That’s why I’m asking that if you absolutely must attend to an email, text or call, please step outside for a few moments. But we’ll miss you.”) Then I pause, take a breath and look around.
  • Seek agreement from participants. As a meeting leader, I can’t impose a ground rule, but I can suggest it and ask for buy-in. By looking at facial expressions and body language, I usually get a pretty quick read on how people feel about this proposed ground rule. (Virtual meetings are another matter!) Do people appear shocked? Annoyed? Relieved? Neutral? Depending how many people are in the room, I may go around and ask each one if s/he can live with this ground rule. If I’m short on time, I ask if there’s anyone who can’t live with it, and explain how important it is that we either all agree to the ground rule, or to agree to any exceptions that must be made. (Examples: Surgeons who are waiting for a call from the recovery room or HR managers who are waiting for Legal to weigh in on a crisis issue.) If someone explains why she must take exception, I ask the other participants for their okay, and work out a way to minimize distractions.
  • Provide a tactile alternative for those going through e-withdrawal. I typically bring some kind of (fairly quiet) tabletop toys that serve as a replacement for tapping and typing, without distracting from the conversation at hand. Another benefit: Such toys provide an element of fun, and can help defuse stress and increase brain functioning. In fact, some people concentrate better when they are doing something with their hands that doesn’t demand much energy from the brain. Example: Stress balls, Silly Putty, Slinkys, modeling clay, Legos, K’Nex, colored markers and paper placemats, and magic wands. (Check out Trainers’ Warehouse for more ideas.)
  • Try enforcing the ground rule with vigilance and diplomacy first. Once you have agreement to this ground rule, you have to be prepared to enforce it. (After all, nothing erodes the credibility and respect of a meeting leader faster than someone who lays out ground rules, and then promptly allows people to trample all over them!) This can be awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. The trick is to find an approach that works well for you, the offender, and the group as a whole. Much depends on your relationship with participants and their relationship with each other. Examples of “subtle” ways that may help keep the offender in check: Call on that person when he is in the middle of typing away. (“Jeff, I’m curious whether your experience mirrors Joan’s. Can you say a few words about that?”) Repeat as needed. Or try walking (or looking) toward the person and pause, letting silence fill the air. He should get the message pretty quickly when he looks up to a sea of stares. If it’s close to break time, you might ask everyone if they prefer to take a quick break to catch up on mail now, vs. later. (Make sure you’re not conveying a passive aggressive tone on this one!)
  • Use a more direct approach if plan A does not work. When the transgressor pointedly ignores your subtle cues, you have to be more direct. (As a rule, I usually don’t like to wait until break to deal with this issue privately for many reasons, not least because others might imagine that I am oblivious or apathetic about this behavior.) One approach is to move to your posted ground rules and ask if anyone would like to revisit these. If no one responds in the affirmative, I would then direct my glance to the multitasker and say something like: “Jane, I’m noticing that you’ve been typing into your iPhone, and I can hear the distinctive ping of incoming and outgoing mail.” Pause. “I’m concerned that we’re not getting the full benefit of your experience during this conversation, and I’m also concerned that several others around the table appear to be distracted by this.” Pause. “We had all agreed that we would wait for the break, or handle urgent situations outside of the room. Can I ask you to either wait until break in 15 minutes, or if it’s a crucial message, to step outside for a moment so you can finish up more quickly, and then rejoin us as soon as you’re done? We don’t want to miss any of your great ideas.” Almost any approach that appeals to that person’s ego as well as to her sense of fair play tends to work well, especially if you have ground rules to back you up.
  • Discuss it privately when needed. I let someone get away with multitasking far too long at a recent meeting of sales managers. I had reasons for letting him slide (he’s new, he arrived late and did not hear the ground rules), but none were very good. At break, someone pulled me aside and begged me to speak with him. (Turns out, he was driving everyone around him nuts, too.) I approached him and asked that he put his device aside when we returned to the room. He defended himself by saying that he was in the middle of some important deals (even though in reality he had been on FaceBook most of the time). I nodded and let him know that although everyone else in the room was in the same boat, they were abiding by the ground rules. I ran through the ground rules he had missed, and emphasized that he could use his device in the hallway if needed. He apologized, closed his laptop, and participated enthusiastically for the rest of the meeting.

Designing a meeting that keeps people fully engaged and enthusiastically participating is one of the surest ways to ward away persistent multitasking. Despite the best-laid plans, however, some participants will inevitably be drawn to their devices like a moth to a flame, given the chance. While there’s no best way to handle this “absent presence” syndrome, I ask myself: What intervention can I make that will create the healthiest environment for people to share their best thinking? How can I make sure that these people get the most out of their time together? When I remind myself that my purpose is to support the whole group in achieving its goals, it makes it much easier to insist on active presence from those who choose to be part of the conversation.

Wondering how I can help?

Let’s schedule a 30-minute meeting so we can explore how to work together to address your most pressing challenges.

Find Articles

Recent Posts


Sign Up Today to Get Free Tips for Creating a Level Playing Field Across Your Virtual, Hybrid Team