In October 2014 I published a blog entitled Let’s Ban Multitasking. It was filled with advice (from high up on my soapbox) about how we should eliminate distractibility that inevitably arises when we multitask in favor of adopting a singular focus. The examples cited were all from the workplace – don’t multitask in meetings, don’t document multitasking as a required skill in job descriptions, etc. I still stand by these suggestions –and I make a conscious effort to apply this logic to increase my effectiveness as situations present themselves.
All that said, a related concept has caught my attention - “switch tasking” –which seems to have a more accurate ring to it. In an article published on Psychology Today’s blog, Nancy K. Napier Ph.D. stated, "Much recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain. "
You might consider that this is just giving a different name to what we previously labeled multi-tasking. However, since we’re getting down to brass tacks, technically speaking, I think if we’re not doing things simultaneously but are actually performing them quickly one after the other then “switch-tasking” is the more exact label. And no matter how you slice it, the outcome is likely to be similar – suboptimal results.
So, besides arguing semantics, what’s my theme this time? Well, aside from the fact that I’m probably only operating at a 50% success rate when it comes to rejecting the lure of multitasking/switch-tasking, I’m finally ready to admit another aspect of my world that is impacted by this ineffective behavior – my emotional wellbeing.
Again, I’m probably stating the obvious. Intellectually, we all know the element of truth in the proverb “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” That proverb is thought to have been recorded as early as 1659. That was long before the current era of technology allowed us to be connected at every turn. Being connected to work 24/7 can make us feel important and it can also deprive us of valuable time we need to detach and concentrate on other important areas of our lives – ourselves and our personal relationships.
This past summer, I gave myself a wonderful opportunity to spend two separate weeks on vacation with different family members “unplugged.” It wasn’t a necessity driven by our location – surprisingly there was plenty of internet connectivity and WiFi where we went. Regardless, I made a conscious decision to delete incoming work email from my mobile phone. I went cold turkey. It was extremely liberating – my mind and body were free to focus on my time with my family members and our adventures. I honestly didn’t give a minute’s thought to what was happening anywhere else. (I won’t kid you, that first day back in the office required a bucket loader to dig out from all the emails in my inbox, but I’d still say it was worth it.)
I haven’t completely reformed. Now that I’m back from vacation mode, email has been reinstalled on my phone, and the tendency to switch back and forth between tasks is more the norm throughout my day and evening, though for the more challenging assignments I try devote a singular focus. In another attempt at self-preservation, I have recently started turning off my phone when I go to sleep so those alerts of incoming emails at 2am don’t lure me. What a novel concept!
Older and Wiser
I really like my job, and I know that I’m a valuable member of the organization, but let’s face it, I’m not saving lives. I remind myself that some things should wait. I want to continue to leverage this self-awareness to be more in the moment, whether the moment is at the family dinner table, on a hike with my dog, while writing a performance review, in a project debrief, or in a Board meeting. Each of these deserves my undivided attention.
This is definitely not a one-size-fits-all prescription (i.e., I’ve hopped off my soap box). I certainly didn’t have an epiphany that struck at once. It’s a personal lesson that I’m learning more about all the time. Amidst all the jargon of multitasking, switch-tasking, singular focus, neuroscience and the like, I’ll chalk up my progress to getting older and wiser.