As traffic starts to mount up everywhere, and more people are heading back to office, is the ill-advised practice of multi-tasking regaining a foothold? Considering all that you need to do personally and professionally, are you attempting to handle too much?
These days, we all seem to be human doings, not human beings. Unfortunately, we give short shrift to concentration and focus. Indeed, concentration and focus are under rated in our current era of multitasking.
Consider this: A magnifying glass held up at the correct angle to the sun will quickly burn a hole through a piece of paper: concentration and focus. Meanwhile, no matter how much sun shines through your office window onto your desk, none of those tedious memos are going to catch on fire. The lack of combustibility has nothing to do with the way the manufacturer engineered this flat piece of glass.
Multi-tasking is occasionally helpful and satisfying but, along with the shower of information and communication overload, represents a paradoxical impediment to getting things done. Let’s see why.
Faster and Less Attentive
The term multi-tasking evolved from the computer industry, the early mainframe computers designed with parallel processes is perhaps the prime example of automated multi-tasking.
In many respects, the computer has accelerated our inattentiveness. Personal computers achieved critical mass in 1981 with the introduction of the Apple Computer designed as an alternative to the IBM PC. The affordable technology enabled us all to engage in sequential activities and elevate our propensity to become task-switchers.
Then for many reasons, and some so bizarre that they defy description, over the next 40 years we began to emulate our computers, multi-tasking while they multi-tasked.
Today, with the typical office professional sending or receiving more than 200 messages a day, counting all forms of communication, and all of them coming and going at shorter intervals, a generation of career professionals are being driven virtually to distraction. A number of the messages are fleeting, the meaning often unclear, and the result a listless and confused workforce.
Against the back drop of information and communication overload, ever-advancing technology, and more choices than anyone needs or even wants, an entire workforce generation has been taught to multi-task as if this is the way it has always been, needs to be, and always will be.
Continuous Partial Attention
Undivided attention is a term that has fallen out of use! Multitasking has become a norm giving rise to “continuous partial attention,” where nothing gets your true and undivided focus, and everything is homogenized to the point of carrying nearly equal weight.
We offer our attention here, there, and then somewhere else. Like a one-man band, we get our strokes from strumming the guitar, tapping our foot, and blowing on the harmonica. We equate accomplishment with flapping our wings, stirring up commotion, and making a lot of noise.
We can barely tolerate stillness. For many, silence doesn’t appear to be golden; it seems more like a dark space, lacking productivity that can yield nothing useful.
Undivided attention is a term that has fallen out of popular use. Generally, we feel guilty if we don’t multi-task! We contemplate our increasing workloads and responsibilities and how they are subject to continual shifts, and justify multi-tasking as a valid response to a world of flux.
Despite the temptation to do otherwise, focusing on the task at hand is vital to getting things done. Whether there’s a handful of tasks confronting you, or ideally only one, give all your time, attention, energy, focus, concentration, effort, and all that good stuff to the task at hand, and then turn to what’s next.
Over-employed, and Undesired
It’s likely that people have always sought to handle many things simultaneously, stretching as far back as cave dwellers. Their multi-tasking effort probably seemed crude by comparison. Someday, somewhere, someone may discover that we are hardwired to continuously attempt to economize our use of time.
Our age old “flight or fight” response to perceived stressors in the environment works well, at intermittent times. The small jolts of concentrated energy and vigilance helps us to safeguard ourselves, our loved ones, and our possessions.
As a species however, we are not wired to effectively handle continuous streams of two major stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — on a daily basis.
Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., director of the neuroendocrinology lab at Rockefeller University, observes that while we can apparently weather stresses and rapid hormonal changes in the short term, about 3 to 15 days, soon thereafter chronic stress begins to ensue.
The result is a weakened immune system, aggression, anxiety and a decrease in brain functioning which results in burnout. Dangerously high levels of cortisol can result in poor sleep patterns and insulin resistance, which can open the door to bad eating habits and weight gain.