From the Executive Director


Tom BurkgrenToo much to do and not enough time to do it! Increasing competition for your time and attention! Do these circumstances sound familiar? We often try to compensate for this condition by multitasking.

Swine veterinarians have practiced multitasking for a long time. We have not always recognized it as such, but we have been doing it for years. Driving down the road between farms, we talk on the phone, dictate clinical notes, compose correspondence, listen to seminars on tape, eat lunch, and prepare for the next call. In the office, we talk on the phone (I sense a pattern developing!), review diagnostic lab reports, look up references, write invoices, look at culture plates, surf the web, and read e-mail.

An extreme example of veterinary multitasking was told to me by a colleague who swears that it really happened. It seems that a veterinarian was traveling down the road between calls with a couple of veterinary students. The practitioner was providing a detailed discussion on diagnostics and treatment plans when he decided to enhance his presentation. So he proceeded to start up his laptop and place it on the dashboard. Then he decided to further enhance his efforts by using a grease pencil to turn his windshield into a writing surface, while continuing to drive down the road. Certainly a teachable moment in more ways than one!

Swine veterinarians are some of the most extreme practitioners of multitasking among the veterinary profession. This may be partly due to our personal attributes, but it is also demanded by our industry. Pork production is a dynamic and challenging way to make a living these days. No one wants to appear to be standing still for fear of being left behind as the industry moves on. The challenges have never been greater than they are right now.

Technology is also driving some of the perceived need to multitask. It is not a new concept, but new technology permits multitasking to flourish in our professional lives. Laptop computers, cell phones, and e-mail are but three examples of digital tools that have added new dimensions to multitasking. New but not necessarily better dimensions! Research is revealing that multitasking is not necessarily the best way to accomplish more. In fact, it has been shown to be the opposite.

Rather than saving time, multitasking may be stealing time by reducing your ability to concentrate on one task at a time. It can reduce your efficiency and certainly your effectiveness. Imagine trying to catch, throw, and hit three baseballs all at once in order to save time. Doesn't work, does it? In coaching baseball it is best to isolate each skill of the game and then focus on practicing them individually. A 12-year-old's attention span is not very long anyway, but it shortens a great deal if you complicate it with attempting too many things at once. Frustration builds and the desired results are not achieved. Adults are not so different.

The short-term psychological benefits of appearing to be busy while multitasking may be overshadowed by the potential negative outcomes. The outcomes of multitasking may vary. One is increased anxiety when you are unable to achieve the desired results in the time allotted to the task. The meeting of deadlines may become overwhelming and extremely stressful or, worse yet, become meaningless. The simple lack of attention to the details of a correspondence may lead to a misinterpretation of your intent. Multitasking may lead to a more severe consequence such as the loss of a key client. It may affect your personal and professional relationships with the people around you. Perhaps in its most public and devastating form it may cause a severe accident as a result of inattention to your driving while talking on your cell phone.

I am as guilty as the next person when it comes to multitasking. This column is really a reminder to me. Old habits die hard but the solution is simple. We have to stop juggling activities. Computers are designed to multitask, humans are not. Prioritize and then take on responsibilities one at a time. Focus on the task at hand. When undivided attention is needed, give it!

The next time I talk to you on the phone, remind me that you don't want to hear my computer keyboard clicking in the background. If you call me on my cell phone as I drive down the road, tell me to pull over before we have our conversation. Be productive and safe out there!

--Tom Burkgren