[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.
My friend and I were checking out at a small grocery store. The clerk was on her cell phone, an obviously personal call, and yet she managed to check each item with mechanical efficiency. She smiled towards us, without actually looking at u s. She spoke the price, I handed her some bills, and she returned the correct change. The groceries were bagged and we walked away.
I was a bit nonplussed, even though this scene has become way too normal. To speak on a cell phone to someone else while handling a paying customer is the antithesis of service. My friend told me I was making a big deal out of nothing.
“Besides, I do that all the time at my office and home,” she smiled. “Multi-tasking.”
“Really?” I responded. “So that’s your fancy word for doing two things at the same time and doing them both poorly?”
“But that clerk didn’t do her job poorly, “ my friend protested. “You got the correct change, right?”
“Yes, I got the correct change but that’s not the point. Let’s just say that if she were my employee, she’d get one warning and then I’d fire her.”
“But that was a small store,” my friend said. “How do you know that she wasn’t the boss?”
“I don’t know that,” I said, trying to explain why I felt that we’d just had less than an ideal interaction. Perhaps it was because the clerk’s mind was elsewhere, and that I believe you really cannot do two things simultaneously, and do them each well, which is why it is illegal to talk on a cell phone and drive. I asked my friend to explain what sort of “multi-tasking” she does at work.
“You know, the usual,” she responded. She described a variety of tasks such as paperwork, letters, taking phone calls, reading e-mails. “If you don’t give a task your full attention, do you think the task suffers?” I asked.
She thought about it. “Not really,” she said. “As long as I do an adequate job, there’s no problem.”
“But what if you are talking face-to-face to someone and you’re still typing or shuffling papers. Don’t you feel that the person will feel slighted?” I asked.
“Well, I suppose it depends on the person,” she responded.
I dropped the subject for fear that if I pushed my point further, a friend would soon be a former friend.
I’m not a big fan of so-called “multi-tasking.” I think it’s a somewhat fraudulent, self-deceptive concept where you believe you’re doing more than you actually can do. It’s a belief that by moving a lot of stuff around, that your quantity is more important than quality. This is probably one of the reasons why the quality of goods and services has declined.
In a similar vein, today there are many multi-purpose tools now on the market, such as a tool which promises to be a hammer, a screwdriver, a saw, a shovel, a can opener and pliers. Such tools do about 40 tasks poorly and none well.
I do believe that Swiss Army knives pack a lot of quality into a little package, though they cannot handle big jobs. The Leatherman tool is also generally a good combination tool because it is well made.
But as a rule of thumb, the more tasks a tool claims, the more poorly it performs. And, generally, as the price lowers, so does the performance and longevity of the tool.
In my world view, it is better to have just a few quality tools that a tool box full of cheap tools that mostly result in frustration.
My friend reminded me that the benefit of her “multi-tasking” is that she gets more done at a lower cost, more quickly. I had to think about what that means.
Yes, true quality – in a service or in a product – takes more time and costs more. And because most of us want it now and want it cheap, we’ve created a frustrating world of low quality service and goods. Change will only come slowly, when enough of us realize that fast and cheap is just a quick thrill with no lasting satisfaction.