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The Challenge of Multitasking

Photo by Desi AnwarI could barely remember the days when life was not all about multitasking.  When one did things one at a time and if you wanted to do a lot of things, then it was a matter of doing things faster, more efficiently or simply finding the time in which to do them.  The form of multitasking in the good old days that I could think of, that is when time seemed to move a lot slower and there were certainly a lot less gadgets in my hand, on my lap and in my handbag, was when I read a book while eating my packet of crisps and sipping my cup of tea, or watching the television while vacuuming the carpet at the same time.

Nowadays of course if you don’t multitask you can barely get anything done.  At least that’s how it feels.  It is as if time is such a precious luxury that to fill it with only one activity literally seems like a, well, ‘waste of time.’  To give a concrete example, while writing this article I am also updating my status on Twitter, check what my friends are up to on Facebook or via online chatting, listen to music and watch television plus surf the Internet to read online newspapers and magazines for the latest stories.  And of course there is that important cup of tea. 

Granted that the activities might not necessarily come under the heading of ‘task’ but more of leisure, pleasure or even addiction, but I imagine no one these days really sit down in an armchair for hours on end doing nothing else but read a book or listen to a whole symphony.  At least I don’t.  Not anymore. (I’d like to, really.  But first of all I need to update my status:  reading a book by such and such.  Highly recommended.  And then keep an eye on my mobile device for responses).

After all we now live in a world of the short attention span, the fifteen second message, the one minute video clip, the 140 character essay plus the patience of a the White Rabbit running late to go with it. Even watching television these days is an exercise in channel surfing.  Driving or being in the car is the time to make phone calls, text message people, read the paper or simply update your status ‘I’m in the car.’  

We’ve become very efficient in the sense that we can do a lot of things at the same time in a very short space of time.  It is as if different parts of our bodies are wired to different things at the same time:  our mind can be at one place, our eyes focusing somewhere else, our fingers doing something on their own

However, does this efficiency make us more effective?  Or even better people, if at all?  

At the office the scene is more or less similar.  There is a meeting.   Someone is making a Power Point presentation that requires feed back for an executive decision.  Chances are everybody else in the room is busy doing their own things, poring over their mobile devices, conducting parallel discussions or chatting online, making other decisions on other issues and this doesn’t include those in the meeting who are talking amongst themselves, day dreaming or too impatient to even listen but prefers to butt in at every available occasion.  Everybody is busy.  But nobody is focused.

So are we losing our depth, both in terms of attention but also in our character?  Is the sheer multitude of multi tasking making us so shallow that we can no longer differentiate between rudeness and good manners?  Between what’s proper and what’s inappropriate?  Talking with your mouth full might still be seen as ill mannered, however, these days it seems perfectly normal for a polite conversation to consist of talking to the person before you plus the many others that you and the other person are also engaging in some forms of virtual interactive dialogues.

It can be annoying of course, and frustrating especially if it gets in the way of a deep and meaningful discussion that requires a lot of feed back and participation from those present.  Not to mention a waste of meeting time.

The upside of it however, is that a lot of meaningful, productive discussion and useful feedback can actually be gained by not having a physical meeting at all but conducted over one’s mobile devices, even as one is stuck in the traffic or enjoying a backrub, without having to be in the same room as grouchy colleagues.

(Desi Anwar)