11 Aug 2023

How to Multitask

When this word first came into common parlance in the 1990s, multitasking was hailed
as the engine that would drive the new digital revolution. Our newfound ability to talk,
text, email and monitor our social media simultaneously was seen as a breakthrough in
our capacity to function effectively in the modern world. We all tried to do it, though with
limited success. Very soon, we discovered that it was not quite the brave new world we
had been led to expect. Research indicates that the human brain is not built for
multitasking and can only focus on one thing at a time. Attempting to multitask causes
lapses of concentration, increased errors, ineffectiveness and ultimately stress and
burnout.

We also soon discovered that, in many instances, multitasking is just rude. We’ve all
experienced the various ways in which being preoccupied by several things at once can
cause offence: fiddling with phones whilst at the dinner table; audibly clicking on your
keyboard while simultaneously having a heart to heart on the phone with your friend;
visibly sending texts when you’re in a video meeting; scrolling through Instagram while
supposedly having a conversation with your partner, and so on. All these instances
demonstrate the same feature – a lack of focused attention. Yet, as human beings we
all crave attention: we want to be listened to; we seek out eye contact; many of us love
to hold an audience spellbound; some of us crave the cosy intimacy of a one-to-one
conversation. If we feel that someone is distracted or not giving us his or her full
attention, we are irritated, and often offended. It is very strange, therefore, that this
undoubtedly insulting behaviour has become a universal feature of contemporary life.
Of course, some element of multitasking is inevitable, and desirable, as we go about our
daily business. Most of us enjoy talking when we are walking with a companion, or
when we are driving with a passenger in the car. Humdrum chores like emptying the
dishwasher, washing up, chopping vegetables or loading the washing machine are
obviously made much more bearable if you’re chatting to someone, or listening to the
radio, or a podcast. But in all these instances at least one of the tasks is semi-automatic
and requires very little focus or concentration – most people would not find it an
impossible challenge to enjoy a stimulating conversation while doing the ironing or
stacking the dishwasher.

More complex tasks, which require a certain amount of concentration (even if you are
just scrolling on the internet), are a different matter. The more you take on
simultaneously, the more scattered and patchier your concentration becomes. You end
up doing nothing well: your text is full of typos; your email is incoherent; your phone
conversation is full of pauses and non-sequiturs. And if an actual, live human being is
involved, you can be sure they will pick up on your distraction and begin to feel
disregarded.

Reconcile yourself to the fact that multitasking is not the holy grail, the fast route to
greater efficiency and productivity, and accept that it is potentially extremely rude. Then
take the following steps to stop multitasking unnecessarily and gain greater focus:

• Learn to prioritise. That means assessing all the competing tasks that are calling on
your attention and working out an order in which to address them. You might find it
easier if you write yourself a list at the beginning of the day, which will help you arrange
all your planned undertakings in order of importance and will also encourage you to see
each task (even if it is just making a phone call or sending a text) as a separate entity.

• Timetable. Especially when you are working, it is a good idea to set aside blocks of
time for certain tasks. So you could decide that every day between noon and 1pm you
will answer all your emails, and from 2pm–3pm you will dedicate yourself to calling back
clients, and so on. If you adhere to this structure, you may be less tempted to jump to
attention whenever you receive an alert or notification on your various devices – feeling
compelled to answer immediately is the first step on the road to multitasking perdition.

• Respect the need to concentrate. If you are about to undertake a difficult job (writing an
awkward email, reconciling your accounts, finishing a report), identify all the outside
stimuli that are likely to distract you (phone calls, texts, emails etc). Switch off devices,
turn off notifications and create a quiet and focused space for yourself, which will enable
you to cogitate in peace.

• Lead by example. If you are a boss, a manager or a team leader, try to create a work
culture which discourages functioning on sensory overload. Do not insist on immediate
replies to texts and emails; ban all other activities in video meetings (no texting or
surreptitious emailing); be supportive of the need for some employees to take
themselves off into a closed room to aid concentration; discourage employees from
eating at their desk while looking at their computers (provide a table and chairs in the
staff kitchen). All of these measures will indicate that you value a calm, productive work
environment, where priority is given to important tasks and less important distractions
are eliminated.

• Prioritise the human. It is easy to be swept along on a tidal wave of online stimuli,
information overload, notifications, requests. Somewhere in this maelstrom are real
human beings who need advice, help, attention, friendship. Don’t let them become
subsumed by all the other calls on your time; signal out the human interactions and get
into the habit of clearing the decks and making space for them. That means finding time
to really engage, not snatching a few minutes when you’re in a taxi on the way to a
meeting, or in the dentist’s waiting room, or waiting outside the school gate. It is much
better to suggest a time when you won’t be interrupted and distracted, even if it means
deferring a conversation for a day or two.

Remember, paying attention is the foundation of good manners, so don’t let your
compulsion to multitask turn you into someone who is unforgivably rude.

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