Chaikhana: The cost of multitasking
May 02 2014
Contrary to ‘efficient’ use of time, new research now shows that doing numerous tasks at once dilutes more time than save it
Unfortunately, multi-tasking has become a primo underlined verb that everyone includes in his or her vocabulary. But peel back the layers of multitasking, like that proverbial onion that Shrek loves, and you will find one distracted individual.
And I am guilty. I “multitask” all the time. If I am driving, I am wondering what else can I do. Should I call the doctor and set up that appointment? Or I do I take the conference call and contribute, or keep it on mute so the background noise does not interfere with the call?
Or, another scenario here. I am at work and in another endless meeting and hoping to download all the information that folks are sharing. I see an instant message pop up wanting input on another task. So, while I am participating in one meeting, I am also managing another request. Or I am eating lunch at my desk while working on a presentation and participating in a virtual meeting. I am ricocheting all over the place.
At home, if I am watching a movie with the girls, I might have my laptop open and browsing emails. Forget the laptop, my cellphone streams my emails and my social apps. There you go … save time. And you wonder … are you saving time or just immersed in your own busyness to pay attention. I am busy, ergo I am important. I matter.
I have heard enough about focus. I have heard enough about paying attention. But that word “multitasking” has crawled into my brain and now dictates the “efficient” use of my time. Like a persistent nudge, it whispers “hey, just divide your attention. You can drive and talk” and so on.
But we don’t save time by multitasking. Time cannot be saved. It is diluted. It is wasted when we don’t slow down. We lose time when we don’t focus on the task at hand. When you are on a call and engaged in one conversation, picking up the second call is unnecessary. When you are interacting with your children, responding to that email on your iPhone is losing precious face time. When you create long “to do” lists or “honey do’s” that create an impression of organisation but increase the stress of things undone.
Unfortunately, multitasking seems to have trickled down to the young ones as well. Kids are unable to concentrate on simple tasks and reading habits are harder to enforce. With YouTube consumption on the rise with Gen Y and Z, information that is not succinct is considered too difficult to consume. Social sharing has also cut into bonafide conversations.
According to an article in health.com, “Multi-tasking requires a lot of what’s known as ‘working memory,’ or temporary brain storage, in layman’s terms. And when working memory’s all used up, it can take away from our ability to think creatively, according to research from the University of Illinois at Chicago.” Too much focus can actually harm performance on creative problem-solving tasks,” the authors wrote in their 2010 study. With so much already going on in their heads, they suggest, multitaskers often find it harder to daydream and generate spontaneous “aha moments.”
Research done by Rubinstein, Meyers and Evans shows that while multitasking may seem more efficient, it might actually take more time. “Rule activation takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second — which can add up when people switch back and forth repeatedly between tasks.” Meyers points out “a mere half second of time lost to task switching can mean the difference between life and death for a driver using a cell phone.”
Researchers continue to find that multitasking decreases productivity, increases stress, and may cause physical discomforts such as stomach aches or headaches. I was at my daughter’s violin recital on Wednesday night and watched her single mindedly focus on her music. Every child did the same. The result was a symphony that was inspiring.
The mind is a monkey, swinging from scattered thoughts, driving priorities, paranoid, incessant and never still. It’s going to take some effort but I am going to let that phone ring and enjoy the scenery when I drive back home today.
As Mahatma Gandhi had said, “There is more to life than increasing its speed”. Here is one more if you need additional motivation, this Zen proverb sums it wisely, “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”
Sometimes it can really be that simple.
(Shaku Selvakumar is a US-based marketing and digital communications
expert; and founder of Coeuredge, a digital experience company)