Multi-tasking: Isn't there something else you should be doing?

In a world dominated by technology, where many of us rely heavily on smartphones, tablets and laptops, it’s perhaps no surprise that the term “multi-task” has its origins in the computer world. Defined as “the concurrent operation by one central processing unit of two or more processes”, multi-tasking has grown to be a hugely desirable quality in the current business landscape. When it comes to job descriptions an ability to multitask often features high on the list of prerequisites, and there are now even simulations on the market to help recruiters predict future multi-stranded performance.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re not central processing units. We’re people. And our reaction times are up to 750 million times slower than the machines we work with. I increasingly get the feeling that the growing pressure, expectation and even addictive desire to multi-task just isn’t sustainable. I’m also beginning to believe that it can often be a really unproductive way of working.

So, what are the risks of multi-tasking?

Is it OK to check emails while you’re listening to a webinar? To text your partner while you’re on a conference call? With advances in technology these temptations are more present than ever. I certainly get a buzz from ticking off more than one job at a time – it feels both calming and hugely efficient. But are we deceiving ourselves? Are we really working in the most efficient way we can, or are we juggling more devices and more intrusions than we can actually handle?

Multi-tasking inevitably leads to partial focus on a number of activities, rather than full engagement in one. Not only does this increase the chance of making mistakes or reducing quality, but it also leads to an incredibly reactive culture. Multi-taskers achieve all the things they do through being highly responsive. Typically always online, they’re the constant “green lights” on Skype and Facebook, ready to drop everything and reply to your message in an instant. When their email icon bounces they jump to it.

What concerns me is whether this seemingly efficient behaviour comes at the expense of a loss of sense of direction and vision. Is short-term hyperactivity getting in the way of creative long-term thinking? In my experience innovation requires periods of focus and full engagement – and it could well be that, when misused, technology poses a real threat to creative thinking processes.

We expect certain people to focus completely on the job in hand: pilots, Olympic athletes, surgeons, musicians to name a few, so why do we find multi-tasking such a desirable quality in other professions?

I have always admired people who can work on projects in parallel and I remember being highly critical of those who could only manage to do one thing at a time, but I am now wondering if I’ve got it all wrong. When I really want to make a good job of something, I need to focus on it. I can probably manage a few distractions along the way, like listening to music, or breaking off for a chat or something, but I know that for me, to do something justice and to feel good about it at the end, I need to start at the beginning and work on it until I produce a result that I am happy with.

I can even relate to doing one thing at a time as a source of relaxation and a calming way of working. Life can get so complicated and stressful, with information coming from so many different directions at the same time, high expectations for quick turn around, immediate decisions and often competing priorities. For me, it’s actually a luxury to do one thing at a time, even if it is demanding. In fact, often the more challenging and involving it is, the more I find it strangely relaxing. I used to really enjoy rock climbing as a form of relaxation for this very reason. To succeed you have to really focus on the here and now, taking each move in turn and removing any other thoughts or distractions from your mind.

Even now, I find the best way to beat stress at work is to find one single challenge that will completely absorb me for a period of time, even if that challenge is stressful in its own sense.
The other night, I found myself sat in front of the TV, laptop open, reading texts and listening to music whilst trying to have a conversation! Multi-tasking or just plain stupidity?