A hand on the wheel, a thumb on the QUERTY keys in the phone, and eyes alternating between the road and the speeding text.
Feeding a toddler on the lap, a phone sandwiched between the right cheek and ear, a skewed pair of eyes scanning the laptop screen.
Half an ear on the speaker on stage, a revisionary glance on the points to present and mind on the agenda for a client meeting the next day.
Math formulae clouding the eyes, song lyrics on You Tube filling the brain and messages from a school group yanking attention.
These are examples of a few multi-taskers, capable of hopping between assignments and connecting dissimilar mental nodes at the same time without a hassle. They juggle jobs in hand with aplomb and carry the tag of super achievers with elan. There is one problem, though, and a serious one at that.
Unbeknownst to them, the two sides of their brain’s prefrontal cortex have slipped into a pattern of disharmony, and their think tank has become muddled. What they consider a phenomenal coup of their mental power has in truth turned detrimental to their brain capacity. What they take pride in—being able to get more done in less time —has in reality become their nemesis.
Multi-taskers are often lauded, but the truth is this much-acclaimed skill has no merit except it injects a notion in them of being a notch better than others, hence more worthy of accolades. It is a myth probably instituted by new age corporates that expect their employees to extract their last dreg of energy to perform, failing which, to be ready to perish.
The downsides of multi-tasking has been in discussion for a long time now, but they have been ignored deliberately for reasons of vanity than purpose. It serves one’s reputation to be a multi-tasker in a world of equal calibers; it gives fillip to one’s self-confidence to imagine that to be able to do multiple tasks at one time reflects one’s competence, and it acts as a pick-me-up sign in a contest where speed is key. Add to these, a delusion of time-management it induces into our psyche.
None of the above is true. What is true is that multi-tasking, especially when it involves neurologically intense tasks that require cognitive effort, retards our reflexes, mixes our priorities and takes our eyes off what is important. Research says it adds burden to the brain, consumes more glucose, thereby sapping our energy and making us disoriented. Our error index goes up and the quality of work suffers. As simplistic as it might sound in words, the truth behind this ‘talent’ to juggle is a lot more damaging than we may care to think. The negative effects often remain unperceived, but they come out in the open in the long term when tasks are ridden with mistakes and the final outcome is below par.
The brain science behind it apart, arguments against multi-tasking have sound reasoning. Switching focus frequently and trying to fix attention on more than one thing demands the brain to turn off from one thing and move to the other, which takes extra time. It may not seem like much, but when gathered over a series of actions, the shifting can result in longer processing time and delays. It is like how leaving our appliances on standby can lead to higher current bills that we fail to notice.
Having said that, it is nearly impossible for people to dislodge the habit of multi-tasking when workload gets overwhelming. Students have more than a handful to accomplish in order to make the cut, employees with ballooning targets stare at back-to-back deadlines and managers have bottom lines to bolster. Given these, multi-tasking seems like the only way to manoeuver through increasing work pressure.
It is a tough call to make, but one must find a middle path where neither productivity suffers nor one’s well-being. Organising chaos will require discipline and an ability to prioritise one’s responsibilities. The first thing to do is to dethrone multi-tasking as a champion’s asset and decide that we will not put our brain in duress unless life is at stake. We have a choice to either clutter our mind with miscellany or to fix our focus on one and give each task its own deserved time, and get it done well.
At the end of the day, we have only two hands and let us give them only enough to handle. Juggling might be an exciting sport, but only those who are exceptionally adept will ace it. A majority of us have butter fingers and cannot dabble with more than one thing at a time, and we had better know it before dropping things becomes an incorrigible habit.