To do two things at once is to do neither. – Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.
There was a time when technology promised to free us from the burden of mundane chores and give us more time to concentrate on the important and enjoyable things in life – family, leisure, creativity. This promise of liberation sometimes seems a distant memory, and the technology that we once hoped might free us can – if we allow it – enslave us. Now, while you talk to your colleague, you can write an SMS message, check your email, twitter, and all while making a cup of coffee.
Technology has brought information – in floods. It is estimated that a weeks’ worth of the New York Times contain more information that any individual in the 18th century would have come across in a lifetime.
And how do we cope with being bombarded with so much information? We ‘multitask.’ Except we don’t ‘multitask’ because there is no such thing.
Some things can genuinely be done together – you can eat and watch TV, or chew gum and walk at the same time. But here we are talking about more high demand, cognitive or intellectual activities; these simply cannot occur simultaneously. What we are doing is simply switching our attention quickly from one thing to another.
The downside of ‘multitasking’
So what’s wrong with this rapid switching back and forth if it makes us more productive?
Actually, far from making us more productive, ‘multitasking’ actually harms are effectiveness. The rapid switching takes time, and when we keep switching back and forth between various tasks, there is a ‘switching cost.’
First, we end up losing a lot of time. Also, when we switch back to a task, we have to recap what we’ve just been doing, and so ‘multitasking’ involves redundancy. Dave Crenshaw, business coach and author of The Myth of Multitasking, has explored the phenomenon extensively, and writes, ‘You actually take much longer to accomplish things, make more mistakes and increase your stress,’
According to recent research at Stanford University, people who routinely multitask are poor at filtering out irrelevant information and have poorer short-term memory – in other words, at the skills necessary to ‘multitask’ successfully!
Another problem with ‘multitasking’ is that you can end up doing damage to your relationships. Isn’t it annoying when someone you’re taking to is doing something else at the same time? Doesn’t it make you feel undervalued? The danger of this kind of behaviour is erosion in the quality of your relationships and this quality is, as I suppose we all know, is the cornerstone of productivity and happiness.
An understanding of the futility of ‘multitasking’ as a way of enhancing productivity, and an appreciation of the damage it can do, might lead you to want to try to operate in a better way. But how? ‘Multitasking’ is a fairly ingrained habit for many of us but, like any habit, it can be broken with a little conscious persistence.
Put technology in its place
You are not beholden to technology. It should serve you – not the other way around. I used to carry my Blackberry around and get continually interrupted by its buzzing and beeping; now I just turn it off until I’m ready to read the accumulated emails and, when I go out, I sometimes don’t even bother to take it with me.
Technology can be used creatively, of course. I recently read about someone who had almost completely dropped e-mail. He had decided to use Twitter for all his communication. He set his e-mail account to send out an automatic reply telling people that he wasn’t going to be checking the account any more.
This might be a bit unrealistic for many of us, but the point is that our behaviour should not be driven by the technology we use.
Focus on quality
When you switch between tasks, the quality of each outcome suffers. If you want to produce excellent work, you will need to focus. Shut out all distractions as far as possible and just get on with the job at hand.
I once read about a writer who used only a text editor for his writing – no fancy word processors with spell checks and fonts and all manner of bells and whistles to distract him. I suppose a pen and paper might have done just as well.
Accept your limitations
There are 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week – everyone gets the same. You can only do so much, so accept this. You are not super-human. Do what you can, as well as you can, one thing at a time, and then be satisfied.
Develop a schedule
Do you need to check your e-mail continually? Do you even need to check it more than once per day? You could set aside some time in the morning to go through e-mail, and then not check it again. You can apply the same idea to any number of other activities. Make a list of what you need to do and schedule a time to do them all.
See focused attention as a form of meditation
I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of being completely lost in something we love. When immersed in such an activity, time seems to pass unnoticed and we are so focused on the task at hand that nothing else seems to impinge on us. I’ve often found myself reading a good book for so long that I suddenly realise that darkness has fallen and I can barely see the words on the page.
This is the very opposite of multitasking – our attention becomes deep and enjoyment and the outcome of our work are greatly improved.
With a little persistence, and a commitment to quality (and sanity!) we can break our addiction to ‘multitasking.’ We often feel pressure to live life at ‘break-neck speed.’ But this is not helpful or healthy – so slow down, be kind to yourself, take it easy and, perhaps to your surprise, you will be more effective.