Keeping one's balls in the air

Sometimes, the business community embraces a new concept and promotes it so fiercely that it becomes accepted practice nationwide.

Take, for example, the cellular phone. Before everyone had phones in their pockets, there were times when employees actually "couldn't be reached." Bosses, who like to keep tabs on you at all times, loved the cell phone. Employees went along. Suddenly, you're nobody if you're not yakking on the danged thing all the ding-dong day.

These days, the darling of the business community is "multi-tasking." A boss hears the term "multi-tasking" and he clutches his bosom and big, happy tears well up in his eyes. He loves "multi-tasking" because he thinks it means more work is getting done.

Before "multi-tasking" came along, bosses expected you to do every job they dumped on your desk. Now, they expect to you to do all those jobs at the same time.

Every employee now is supposed to be like a street entertainer, a One-Man Band, the guy with the bass drum on his back and the cymbals between his knees. Employees manage all the projects and production and publicity all at once, playing the music, keeping time to a beat in their heads: "Hurry, hurry, hurry."

Employees -- with their Palm Pilots and their miniature phones and their go-go attitudes -- adopted "multi-tasking" as a way to get ahead. It soon became a competition, everybody rushing headlong into doing everything at once. Phoning and PowerPointing and prognosticating and whanging away at those cymbals with their knees. Before long, you'd become a second-rate employee if you couldn't dial a phone with your toes.

But is this the best way to get high-quality work? Aren't employees all scattered and confused? Shouldn't they concentrate on one thing at a time? Shouldn't there be some time during the week when they "couldn't be reached?"

For answers, bosses should look to those who are the ultimate "multi-taskers," people who work at home offices. Not only do we do our work and manage our careers here at home, we also do the housework and the yardwork and tend to children, all at the same time.

We're the pioneers in "multi-tasking," the white lab rats in a great business experiment. And we're never "off the clock." A kid throws up in the middle of the night, he doesn't need a cell phone to contact Daddy.

The other day, I had a light workday scheduled. My only big job was to print a 350-word manuscript and mail it off. The rest was just housework, hanging out with my two sons, and a few errands in the car.

Before my sons were awake, I started printing the manuscript. My printer needs to be fed more paper about every ten minutes, so I'm forced to hang around, waiting for it to make that groaning noise that means it's hungry. I could've used those hours for some quiet meditation, some navel-gazing about my career, but I chose instead to "multi-task." Here's how it went:

Feed the printer. Wander around the house gathering up laundry. Get the washer started. Feed the printer. Get more coffee. Take out the trash. Feed the printer. Check freezer, see whether there's anything that can be disguised as a nutritious dinner. Start grocery list. Feed the printer. Straighten kitchen and hurriedly wipe off countertops. Feed the printer. Move laundry from washer to dryer and start a new load. Feed the printer. Make two work-related telephone calls. Feed the printer. Wake children. Issue breakfast instructions. Feed the printer. Feed the dog. Feed the printer. Collapse into chair to catch breath. Feed the printer.

By the time the manuscript was done, I'd accomplished much, but I was scattered and confused and required a nap in early afternoon.

So, bosses everywhere, take it from us busy housespouses: "multi-tasking" may not be the best solution. It wears people out, and an exhausted, frazzled worker is an accident waiting to happen. You might be better off treating each employee less like a One-Man Band and more like a member of an orchestra. Let each play the lead sometimes, but let them rest sometimes, too.

Otherwise, you'll find your employees dialing phones in their sleep. With their toes.

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