Social Multitasking: Are You Making People Hate You?

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Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton has a gift…

I’ve heard it talked about by pundits, authors, interviewers and, pretty much anyone who’s ever stood toe to toe with him. You could be in a room with a thousand other people, but for the brief few moments you’re with him, nobody else exists.

He’s laser-focused on one-person—YOU.

He’s right there with you. One hundred percent. And, that makes you feel really good. It makes you like him. A lot. Even if you don’t like his politics. Because he’s giving you a gift, without you even knowing it. Trust me, though, he knows exactly what it is, how to use it and why it works.  And, he’s magical at it.

Fact is, though, many folks go the opposite direction and, in doing so…systematically stress or shred nearly every relationship in their lives.

Social multitasking, the anti-connector

Let’s put you on the receiving end of the equation to really understand the impact.  Immediately after meeting Bill, you bump into an acquaintance, Sam. You’re at a large gathering and, as you chat, you notice something quite alarming happening.

Every few seconds, Sam keeps glancing around the room, scanning for others. He’s with you one second, gone another. You don’t quite know when to talk, because it’s not clear when he’s listening or keeping tabs on the ten conversations going on around you.

On the occasions where he snaps back into conversation, he’ll often ask a question.  But, less than five words into your answer you notice he’s scanning the room again, not even listening. Or, he’s started a fresh conversation with someone else.

Sam is guilty of social multitasking, and it’s making you feel like crap!

When people you speak with constantly dart between listening to you, giving you their attention, then wandering offer, especially mid-sentence, it’s just incredibly disconcerting.  It makes you feel belittled, insignificant, frustrated and angry. Oh, hell, it just plain sucks!

So, why are YOU doing it, too?

Simple fact, one of the greatest gifts you can give anyone is your full attention.  And, one of the reasons it’s such a huge gift is that, sadly, full-attention has become so rare that, when given, it’s like you’ve just offered up a trunk full of buried treasure.

But, as much as we love to receive other peoples’ undivided, sing-tasked attention, we’re often guilty of not giving that same attention to others ourselves. And, to make matters worse…

The people we’re most guilty of social multitasking with are those closest to us.

We start conversations, then wander off as soon as our kids start to answer. A phone rings or a person you’ve been trying to connect with darts past, taking your attention away from a partner mid-sentence.

And, honestly, I think mom’s have the toughest time avoiding the social multitasking gremlin, because when your kids are itty-bitty, you have to do it.

There is no reasoning or setting rational boundaries with an infant about when or where they get your attention. If you’re mid conversation and your munchkin needs some love, game over, the little one wins.

So, after years of being patterned to social multitask, it becomes simply a way of life. And, man, can that be a hard pattern to break. But, like any other destructive habit, once the short-term situation that mandates it has ended…

The first step to breaking the habit is awareness…

Take a serious look at how you operate. Do you social multitask or do you offer undivided attention to each person you are with? Guaranteed, the more you do it, the less connected you with those around you and the more strained your relationships are.

You know how bad it feels to have to fight for the attention of those close to you in both your personal and professional life. Now, turn the mirror on yourself.

Are you making others feel the same way?

Become a witness to your own interactions for the next 24 hours. Pay particular attention to the way you allocate your attention in every conversation you have.

Now, for the bigger step. Focus on the conversation you are in. Make whoever you are speaking with at any given moment feel like they are the only ones alive.  And, if you’re someone who’s easily distracted by future to-do’s, keep a note pad, PDA or something always with you to jot down anything that pops into your mind that needs your future attention.

So, when you’re in conversations and these things pop into your mind, you can quickly jot them down and return to the conversation, rather than jumping to that task. And, make it clear that this is what you are doing and you are still fully committed to the conversation, so the person you’re talking with doesn’t think you are just wandering off again. Then, truly return to the conversation.

Commit to giving the person you are with your FULL ATTENTION.

It’s far better to give someone 5 minutes of laser focused, undivided attention than an hour of meandering, distracted energy that says “I really don’t care enough about you to give you my full attention.”

Commit to short, but highly-engaged bursts of absolute attention and presence and watch the magic unfold. The conversations will get better, deeper, more meaningful. There’ll be fewer miscommunications and misunderstandings. And, the people around you will begin to feel far more valued respected and understood.

Do a 3-day trial and see what happens. Truly, you’ll be amazed!

Am I oversimplifying this?  Is it really possible?

Does this simple thing really make such a difference?

Have YOU ever been on the receiving end of social multitasking?

Got any extreme examples? C’mon, I know ya do, so share…

Got any other strategies that might help?

Let’s discuss…

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28 responses

28 responses to “Social Multitasking: Are You Making People Hate You?”

  1. Brandon W says:

    These are some excellent points. It’s very annoying when someone doesn’t really listen to what you’re saying; they’re pre-occupied with juggling 10 conversations. Research has shown that the human mind can not effectively multi-task. I wrote about that on my blog (see link below) a couple of weeks ago; though from a different angle. Having a notepad handy is one of the best ways to keep track of diversions without letting them divert you.

    Relevant blog entry: “The 40% Productivity Loss: Wasting Time and Energy in the New Economy”

  2. Bryan Eye says:

    Great topic, Jonathan, and one that will be increasingly relevant as the timeslices we have for all of the things going on in our daily lives meets with more and more competition. There are some people that I’ve wanted to connect more with, but when someone is unable to focus for more than a minute or two on any one topic, it makes it hard to get deeper into their psyche and make a real connection. We all need to work in this area to ensure that we bring quality and genuineness to our encounters with others.

  3. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Brandon – Yeah, I have a book I sent to review about multitasking, will have to read it this week and see if it talks about this issue. Thanks for the link

    @ Bryan – No doubt, it’s a real struggle for me, too. And, I think we tend to do it more with those closest to us, because we just take for granted that they’ll be there. But, changing this is becoming an increasing priority for me.

  4. Bryan Eye says:

    Okay, now you’ve got me thinking about this.

    What is required to be mindful of the moment? It means having control of your thoughts (while listening, don’t let your mind wander onto your own concerns). It means your own house is in order (if you can’t get your mind off your own problems, how can you care to listen to those of another). It means non-judgment (when you start judging, you’re no longer listening). It means patience (because they have the stage).

    All of these attributes require a bit of maturity, self-discipline and an eye on personal growth.

  5. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Bryan – Agreed, I think having your own psychic house in order makes the job of being present so much easier. But, I also think it’s a skill that can be practiced and largely mastered. I’ve seen people whose personal lives are absolute disasters do it quite well.

  6. Bryan Eye says:

    Ah, good point. This will be my final comment on this, but in my previous post, I should replace the word “your” with “my”.

    We (I mean, I… caught myself this time) tend to project my own worldview. As you remind me, that isn’t the only one out there.

  7. Very good article Johnathan, it is so very true, unfortunately I find my self doing the social Multi-tasking quite a lot, but will now try to focus more, even if fro smaller more intense amounts of time in a conversation

  8. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Andrew – yeah, we all do it, it’s just one of the ways we try to handle the speed of connections. But, like I said, knowing it’s an issue in the first place goes at least puts you in a better position to do something about it or, at least, make a more conscious decision

  9. Dan says:

    Good stuff, Jonathan –
    Reading this even in the limited context of twitter and the tweetosphere (the world of did-ya-knows, I-justs, and drive-by kudos), I have to revere how some show a true knack for communicating ‘with’ you, not ‘at’ you. I suspect folks being authentic have an easier time conveying their attention/interest than those ‘…rush chairman — damn glad to meet you’ clones who scurry among us.

    On a broader note, your insights remind me to dig out Pirsig’s Motorcycle Maintenance … it has been a while.

    And if it’s not already implied: you keep writing, we’ll keep reading. Thanks.

  10. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Dan – Great observation, this definitely plays out to a certain extent in social media, too. Interestingly. And, thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  11. This is so true. I’ve seen it from a unique perspective. For 15 years I worked as an exotic dancer. In those clubs that “hustle” drinks (the customer buys a drink costing $20 and up for a dancer, and she gets a percentage of the money) the real secret to success (as a dancer) is to LISTEN to that man. If you hang on his every word, ask him intelligent questions to draw him out, and just listen, I promise you if he has another $20 he will buy you another drink. I’ve always felt many men show up not because they are so interested in watching naked women (of course they are but) but because for at least a short time they can buy the illusion that a woman LISTENS to them and CARES about every word. His wife might or might not be giving him sex, but I bet she is much too busy to sit and listen to him chat about his job or hobby. The other thing I learned doing that is that other people are often really interesting if you stop to listen! You can learn a lot that way.

  12. Ace says:

    “Commit to short, but highly-engaged bursts of absolute attention and presence and watch the magic unfold.”

    If you are really active at social media, it’s almost impossible to do unfortunately…

  13. Steve Kinney says:


    Great post, always a fan. Cognitive Daily posted an article today about the psychology of eye contact in social interactions. I came across it after reading this post.

  14. I confess to being guilty of not paying strict attention to my kids or grandkids when they catch me in the middle of finishing this or that on the computer.

    I agree that the first step is to become aware. The next is to remember how rotten you feel when you’re the recipient of such multitasking. Then it’s easier to focus your eyes/attention to the speaker.

    As for me and my computer, it’s best to leave it off or turn it off when I really need to engage.

  15. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Summer – now that’s some anecdotal evidence! I think it’s one of the reason people actually see therapists, too. Partly for the treatment, but I wonder if a significant part of the healing comes just from having the undivided attention of some, really listening for a guaranteed amount of time. I know a lot of people who’d pay for just that.

    @ Ace – not so sure about not being able to pull it off in social media. I am very active in many platforms, but I do it in short intense bursts where I try to engage. Though, it definitely depends on the place. Twitter is, by definition, a massive rambling conversation where people are not only able to, but encouraged to interject. But, you don’t have to respond.

    @ Very cool, thanks for the link, man!

    @ Flora – you and me both, God help the conversation if there’s an open computer within 15 feet! 😉

  16. Jonathan,

    I always suspected this about you. Confession is good for the soul. 🙂

  17. This is so true. Thanks for waking me up at the wheel on this one.

  18. Great post Jonathan! I did an experiment once. When I was talking to another person I gave the my complete attention, just as you suggested, and also focused the conversation on them. How were they doing, whats new at their work, hows their dog, etc.

    The results of the experiment were amazing. When I would walk in a room of people, those people I had talked to would come straight to me to talk. I think it shows two things: how much people yearn to be truly listened to, and how much people like talking about what they are up to.

  19. […] What with the internet hoo-ha recently about Google induced ADD, I found Jonathan’s article on Social Multitasking particularly relevant. Jonathan explores how frustrating and hurtful it is when someone is […]

  20. Brad Grier says:

    First time reader:)

    Good article. Really hit home, and as you state, you often pay least attention to the ones closest to you.

    I’ll be trying to pay more attention…consciously.

    …and maybe this even works in a Social Media context too. If you pay full attention to your subject/audience/twitter conversations, your audience may appreciate it.

  21. Sonia Simone says:

    Good stuff, Jonathan. I know I feel pulled in a million different directions, and it’s become very hard for me to STOP and just be with one person.

    I really need to start sitting meditation again, that helped a lot, with many things.

  22. Jonathan:

    You truly hit it on the nail with this one. I’m so aware of this because I’m in a position to know about this. I have to read every person’s lips when I communicate with them – therefore, I am literally forced to look at them in order to keep the conversation flowing.

    Because of that, I’m acutely aware of what their eyes are doing and believe me, there’s nothing more disconcerting than having someone whose eyes start shifting the moment you open our mouth. I have a friend who does that. The moment it’s my turn to speak, she starts looking all over the room. It’s so annoying!

    But I learned a neat trick with this one. The moment a person starts getting shifty eyes, I stop talking and wait calmly. Sooner or later they snap back into focus – sometimes silence is the best teacher.

    Have you ever met Bill? It sounded as if you might have because you seemed to know that he is the type to give you laser sharp focus.

    Finally, I can’t wait to meet you because the two of us will be so focused on each other’s conversation that no one will be able to break that concentration. What fun that’d be!

  23. Justin says:

    Whenever I go to an event, I don’t believe I am a “social multitasker”, mainly because I just don’t have the energy to talk to so many people at once. I don’t think I’ve noticed anyone else doing it before, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never heard of this principle until now.

  24. Ulla Hennig says:

    Yes, I have been at the receiving end of social multitasking, and I was very annoyed. A similar thing happens when I try to put too many appointments with people in my daily schedule. I realize that while having a talk with the one person at the moment, I sometimes think of the appointment ahead, and that is also a kind of social multitasking which takes away focus from the person I am talking with.

  25. Gina says:

    I was fortunate to know a person with that kind of focus.. she was the director of my kids homeschool resource center. She was brilliant, compassionate, progressive.. but when she recently passed away, the one thing everyone really remembered about there was how she made them feel, as if there were no one else in the room, by her singular attention, if even for a moment. I was amazed how she knew my name (and all four of my kids) before we had even officially met. I aspire to that level of personal attention.. hard as it is, because it really does go a long way.

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  27. […] was reading a post by Jonathan Fields about a concept called “social multitasking”.  We’ve all experienced it […]