Bring multi-tasking to an end for hotel leaders

I know there is BIG TIME pushback on the idea of multi-tasking. Being so popular in our modern work society, the idea of multi-tasking is more than a fad – more than, say, IMU (Individual Business Units) or MBWA (Management By Walking Around) – two of my personal all-time favourite business practices.

In the hotel business, we need to be able to differentiate between when it is appropriate to do more than one thing at a time and when it is not. Here is a great quote.

“Studies show that the human mind can only truly multitask when it comes to highly automatic behaviours like walking. For activities that require conscious attention, there is really no such thing as multi-tasking, only task switching—the process of flicking the mind back and forth between different demands. It can feel as though we’re super-efficiently doing two or more things at once. But in fact, we’re just doing one thing, then another, then back again, with significantly less skill and accuracy than if we had simply focused on one job at a time.” ~ Christian Jarret

My opening comment is a bit of tongue in cheek; however, I’m very serious about putting an end to the idea that multi-tasking is a good practice to get into and stay with. The simple fact is the human mind can only entertain one thought at a time. If you don’t believe me – just try it! Try thinking about two things at once: like what to make for dinner and how you can jazz up the monthly commentary next time around. It’s impossible to entertain two thoughts at once. Back and forth works but never two together at the same time. We’re not built that way and for some of you, that’s enough to prove my point. For the rest of you, you’re going to need more evidence and reasoning so here we go.

I, for one, was a big fan of doing several things at the same time. Some of my personal favourites were: attending meetings and reading and responding to email; talking on the phone and signing checks; conference calls and signing off on daily operations packages; having a weekly staff meeting and signing purchase orders. My all-time favourite was watching the news channel that constantly played in my boss’s office while attending the weekly executive committee meeting. I was convinced that these mundane tasks were all being handled effectively and efficiently by me in a “more than one thing at a time” functional way. It is true that I was able to do all these things I described together with their “partner” activity, and both tasks were seemingly done. However, on closer examination, the output or thruput on all of these was below par.


To understand why we multi-task we must go back in time. We must remember what it was like to be given a new task and to understand why we think it’s OK and preferred to mix it up with another one. The big clue comes from the quote when Christian points to humans being able to effectively do more than one “automatic behavior.”

For most of us in hospitality leadership, this is the perfect trap to fall into. This is because we come from the floor where it’s imperative that we accomplish as many things as possible with each movement or trip. The old economy of movement or the modern-day version we call multi-tasking was imperative to being efficient. Never take a trip on or off the floor without your hands and tray being full. I can vividly remember my captain waiter following me around and telling me what I could and should be adding to each trip in and out of the kitchen/dining room. Same for anyone in our industry who has tasks to perform such as cleaning a room, stocking cupboards, delivering luggage or assembling a meal. All these tasks fall into that “highly automated” class of tasks.

This positive and essential skill is one that can, and should, be taught to all service staff to ensure they are productive and work efficiently. It will go a long way in saving time, energy and minimizing stress. We all too often carry this ideal from our jobs that gave us a path to follow in hotels into our roles as supervisors, managers and executives. A short blurb I created for this piece goes like this: Once we were all about doing three things at once: a second drink for Mr. Howard, clean napkins for my station and the check for table 12. All of this was accomplished on one trip back to the dining room. At the same time we know we’re two minutes out from the entrees being ready for table 9, we see Mrs. Smith heading to the restroom – better get her one of those fresh napkins in the next 90 seconds, table 7 needs clearing and table 10 is ready to order.

We have this holdover from our service work in the hotel business that tells us we need to multi-task. Now we find ourselves in a different, new world of being a manager or executive and we need to change gears to function most effectively. We are now being paid to think. That’s right, the most important function we perform is between our ears and that requires focus and discipline.

The ability to concentrate on one thing from start to finish is what we are striving for. If you have a short attention span and continually interrupt yourself with competing thoughts, you need to change that behaviour now. How do you know you have a focus problem? Take this simple test: think for 2 minutes about the most important thing you need to do next. Commence that activity and see how long it takes you to lose focus and think about something else? That focus is a muscle and it needs exercise to remain focused for an extended period. Continue to practice this activity and push yourself to focus longer each time. Your reward will be tasks being complete and done, not half done and needing to be re-done again and again.

Another telltale sign of the multi-tasker is that your work rules your day. Do you come to work with 100 things to do and when you leave 12 hours later, you have 110 to do? That’s because you’re trying to do more than one thing at a time and nothing really gets completed. Completed is what you want. Done and never to re-visit is your goal!

Having a routine is also an essential part of your arsenal as a manager. Without the power to concentrate and a routine, you are underwater. Does this sound all too familiar? If it does don’t panic. It’s not a lost cause; you just need to shift gears and take your new role seriously enough to realize it requires a different approach. The good news is by putting new attention on how you work you can change all this nonsense. It only requires you to stop and be honest about how things are going and then do something about it.

In closing remember this simple fact: Multi-tasking does not save time, it wastes time; and the good news is, it’s only a habit. Like smoking, it’s high time you quit.

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