One Saturday recently, I found myself being stressed out by a doctor. (I owe this fun-packed weekend to finding it difficult to refuse when someone asks me a favour.)
I was given a lengthy IQ test and 20 minutes to complete it. As I raced to answer the questions, two different heavy metal albums were delivered simultaneously into my left and right ears at high volume through a set of headphones. My blood pressure was monitored throughout.
I must admit I was disappointed. I’d hoped that they’d at least ask me to answer the phone at the same time.
Loud music? Work you have to concentrate on? Deadlines? Telephone calls? I work in an office. Of course, I can handle all those tasks at the same time.
You too? Well this post is about multi-tasking. Not the usual debate as to whether you can do it – but whether you should do it.
Because for all my foolish bravado, the stress test gave me a cracking headache. And unaccountably, I found all the maths questions easy and many of the word-based ones difficult. Distinctly uncool in my line of work.
Just yesterday, I had cause to think of that stress test again. I was cycling home behind a man who’d thought it a good idea to ride his bike and conduct a phone conversation at the same time. Unlike my stress test, he was combining two very simple activities that really don’t take much thought. Riding a bike is, after all, as easy as…Nevertheless he was making a real hash of it. And as he wobbled from side to side, he cemented my view that multi-tasking isn’t so much something to take pride in, but to avoid.
One person who agrees is Jon Steel, co-creator of the ‘Got Milk’ campaign. In his book ‘Perfect Pitch’, he describes running over his BlackBerry with his car. When this failed to destroy it, he took a sledgehammer to it. Drastic measures perhaps, but this is how he justified it.
‘The day my BlackBerry died was a good day not only for me but also for my employer. In the months that have passed since its demise, I can confidently report that my productivity has been improved, my levels of creativity enhanced and, as if that weren’t enough, some people have suggested that I might have become a nicer person.”
He goes on. ‘“Always on” technology like a BlackBerry, mobile phone or computer means that we are distracted when we should be concentrating on what we are paid to do, and even when the machine is not actually interrupting us, our minds are constantly ready for it to do so and cannot focus on the task in hand.’
Don’t worry, the irony of blogging on this subject and discussing it via Twitter hasn’t escaped me. In fact, I’ve had fun imagining what Jon Steel would make of Twitter. To me, it’s a fantastic way of sharing information and getting in touch with people, but it certainly falls into the category of a terrible distraction.
So it poses us with a challenge – to get the best out of ‘connecting technology’, whilst also finding sufficient headspace to do some real thinking. What to do?
I like the way Jon Steel puts it.
“It means taking a stand against other people who believe speed is a more important quality than intelligence; it means sometimes disappointing them in the short term in the interests of longer-term satisfaction; it means really taking control (as opposed to the illusion of control offered by the BlackBerry) of your own life.”
On a more practical level, I’ve found it means really planning how you use your time.
· So is there a task you have to do this week that needs your undivided attention?
· Can you organize your time so you can take a few hours away from 24/7 distractions?
· Do you get better work as a result?
· Could you actually save time by doing tasks consecutively rather than concurrently?
Right, I’m starting with a brave attempt to tear myself away from the ball-by-ball commentary. Will banish the thought that I might miss something and instead do something. If you’d like to do the same, but need to wean yourself off more gently, take a look at this lovely Economist site where inspiring people invite you into their thinking space http://thinkingspace.economist.com/