living well

Further evidence that multitasking is bad

9 Comments 24 January 2013

…disguised as another rant about customer service.

I was in Accessorize (a British shop selling accessories) recently, buying a necklace for a friend’s birthday. I walked up to the counter to pay. There was no queue and the manager was at the till. I knew she was the manager by the way she was speaking so briskly to the other staff who were unpacking boxes of accessories near the till.

She acknowledged my presence by smiling at me and moving closer to the till, but then she continued to discuss the task with the employees in an annoyed voice like she was about to reprimand them. I felt awkward. Partly because I had bosses like this in the past and I know how much it sucked. No one likes being spoken to like this, and an audience made it worse.

I had already set the necklace on the counter indicating I wished to pay so I couldn’t just wander off until their conversation finished. I pretended an intense interest in a display of party rings on the counter.

Finally she seemed to finish and picked up my necklace to check the price and start ringing it through the till. I stopped staring at the party rings and smiled at her politely, waiting for her to ask for me to pay.

However, she remained so distracted by her conversation with the employees that she felt she needed to add another point and turned to them to say it. I still waited awkwardly, mid-transaction, because she hadn’t triggered the credit card reader yet so I couldn’t put my card in.

At last she returned to me, smiled again and tapped a few more buttons until the card reader was ready. I put in my card and she said, “I’m sorry for talking to my team while serving you, it was something I needed to tell them.” I didn’t feel she handled the situation well, especially with a customer present but I just politely smiled and tapped in my PIN.

She then said “Multitasking! That’s what us women are good at!” I raised my eyebrows at her. Did she really think she had successfully just multitasked in front of me?

It doesn’t look like it,” I wanted to reply. Oh, if only people could hear our imaginary versions of the conversations we have every day, we’d all have to grow a thick skin, I guess.

But instead I said, “I’m not. So I don’t even try it.” She actually looked surprised. Seriously, she looked quickly up at me like I had just said, “I was born a man and therefore do not have the same amazing female talents you have.


That’s right,” I said, trying very hard to not let the hint be too obvious. “I recognise my limitations and not being able to multitask is one of them. So I don’t try it.” Of course that last bit was a lie, I do try it frequently even though I know I shouldn’t, but dangit, I wanted her to think about it.

As I left with my necklace in it’s bag I noticed she had a smug look on her face. So yeah, I wanted her to think about it and she thought about it and came to the conclusion that she was a seriously cool woman who could multitask, whereas some members of the female group could not. Special powers. (Not.)

My little defiance wasn’t lost on everyone though, as I left I also noticed one of the employees look at her then me and smirk: a knowing look exchanged between two people who share the fact that we’ve both had crap bosses.

Moral of the story? We aren’t as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. There is a myth that women can multitask; maybe we can (maybe everyone can), but can we do it well enough to justify doing it?

Anyone else still thinking about Mindfulness and trying not to multitask? If you’re new here, I wrote a couple of posts about it recently: Multitasking is bad and So how did you do? I keep reminding myself every day that doing one thing at a time well, is much better than trying to do several things at once with distraction. But it’s really difficult! I have to keep remembering how much better everything is and how much better I feel and how much more I get done when I do it right…

What about you?


Your Comments

9 Comments so far

  1. MrsB @ Mind over Matter says:

    Multitasking wastes a lot of time but I still do it 😐 – I always have my ipad on my lap when watching TV. The TV doesn’t really interest me though so it’s ok, right? :)

    • Michelloui says:

      I think it only matters if the multi tasks you’re trying to do are things you want to do well! Watching TV that you’re not interested while using your iPad is fine–you’re ok 😉

  2. MsCaroline says:

    I have to confess that I do a little bit of multitasking: namely, I listen to audiobooks while I do just about everything! Otherwise, I have lists for just about everything I need to do, because otherwise I’ll forget. It’s very sad, but at least I know my limits. As for your multitasking ‘friend,’ I will give her props for at least apologizing to you. I have to say I didn’t anticipate that at all after her behavior up to that moment! Nonetheless – a multitasker she’s not.

    • Michelloui says:

      Knowing our limits is important! As for her apology, I’m not sure it really was an apology, it felt more like a polite but ultimately meaningless prefix to the rest of what she had to say, kind of like beginning a letter Dear Michelle doesn’t really mean I am dear to the sender. Maybe I don’t give her enough credit.

  3. Trish says:

    I spent my most of my previous working life in retailing and it used to make me so frustrated when staff or managers had conversations in earshot of customers. This manager’s way of handling her staff was not good.

  4. Tammy says:

    I used to think that I could do a million things at once. Now I know that while I can multitask, none of the items are being done as well as they would have been had I done them sequentially, focusing on one until completion before starting the next. National Public Radio in the states today had an article about just this!

    That retail manager was wrong on so many levels! You don’t correct people in front of others, and ALL conversation stops when a customer can hear! Dang, that is retail (and management) 101!!!!

  5. Cathy says:

    This reminds me of an interview I attended where the woman interviewing me said I would have to multi-task. I did it whilst I had that job. Now I prefer to concentrate on one thing and do it really well, before going on to another task. I must say I wonder how this woman became a manager. Did the staff look embarrassed on her behalf?

  6. The Fool says:

    I think most of us think we can multi task doing things and using twitter and then have no idea what someone has just said to us :)

  7. Expat Mum says:

    I’ve just posted after a week off precisely because I can’t multi-task. And haven’t they actually done several studies showing that none of us multi-task, we just try to do too many things at the same time usually not very successfully.
    Unless you have two sets of arms and at least another brain, how can you possible attend to more than one thing? Yes, we can listen to music (or audio books) while working in the kitchen, because at least one of those activities isn’t really tasking, but other than that, it’s a myth.
    And I think I might have been sorely tempted to say something to that awful manager.

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An American writer in the UK for over 20 years. Lives in Essex. A pretend extrovert.

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