When was the last time you did nothing, absolutely nothing?
Right now, as I’m keying this on my nifty laptop, I have Hey Jude playing on iTunes, NDTV 24X7 on mute in the background and my eye on my watch as the minutes tick by, mindful of both my deadline and dinner. And yes, both the cordless and my mobile are at hand’s length for the next time either one rings.
As for my computer, there’s the whole world waiting for me—one window opens to Gmail updating me on people reaching out or wanting to chat; another is open on the 3quarksdaily site (and thanks are due to my former boss, Shekhar Bhatia, for introducing me to it); a third offers the distractions of my mindless addiction to Spider Solitaire and yet another has the manuscript of a book I’m working on, staring at me somewhat balefully for being neglected for so long.
When did life become so complicated?
I look at my multi-tasking life helplessly as the pile of books on my bedside table grows perilously higher with all the “must-read” books I seem to buy but never quite have the time, or concentration, to plough through. Knowledge society is one thing, information overload is quite another. And every time what it boils to is this: so much to do, so little time.
Help, of course, is at hand.
A site called www.divadirectories.com has all manner of wonderful nuggets—fast and easy Christmas decorations, promoting your small business, how to run an effective business meeting and, finally, the big question: “Multi-tasking: is it a good thing?” I can’t help noticing that they’ve spelt it, “mutli” which kind of answers the question, doesn’t it?
But multi-tasking is the brave new mantra of corporate India, a quality to be both admired and acquired as you work yourself up that greasy ladder of success. Have a game of golf this Sunday? That’s a great opportunity to network, strike new deals and exchange Blackberry numbers. Planning a presentation on Monday? Make sure you’ve got your PowerPoint multi-media presentation down pat. Flying to Bangalore on a business trip? Don’t forget to charge your laptop so that you can work on those new sales figures on the flight.
A former editor, smug in his conviction that he was making life easier for everyone at work, was met with frankly dismayed looks around the table when he insisted his core team arm themselves with Blackberrys and be available 24x7.
Closer home, I look around at what Time magazine calls “Generation M”: teenagers who move seamlessly between homework assignments, instant messaging and downloading the new Citizen Code track. Surely, this can’t be right. You cannot humanly write a paper on global warming with AC/DC blaring, and not quite in the background.
Human beings have always multi-tasked—to an extent. It’s quite possible to cook a meal, listen to the radio and talk on the phone (especially to your mom to get her recipe for the mutton biryani you are cooking) all at once. What’s made multi-tasking increasingly complicated is the technology.
How do you, for instance, cook a meal while you’re looking up recipes on the Internet? Or how do you conduct a “quality” conversation with your 14-year-old dealing with her first heartbreak while you’re downloading songs on your Ipod? Some things, quite honestly, are best done one at a time.
But then, one person’s inability is another’s efficiency. Tell your teenager that they cannot do trigonometry and listen to music at the same time, and chances are you’ll get The Look: “Duh, I just got an A on my last assignment.”
Votaries of multi-tasking argue that this acquired ability enables individuals to get more done in lesser time. Prima facie that is true. You can reply to your emails while you talk to your colleague in Mumbai.
But science is less equivocal. David E. Meyer, director of the University of Michigan’s Brain, Cognition and Action laboratory cautions, against what he calls slowdown: in simple English, chances are if your brain has to process more than one simple task at a time, it will take longer. As the tasks at hand get more complicated, there is, he says, a “decrease in efficiency.”
Moreover, habitual multi-tasking leaves the brain in a perpetually hyper-excited state. You need to let it take a break if you want to regain your concentration. You need time out if you’re going to absorb the meaning and essence of that wonderful article you have just read on your computer. And sometimes you need time out just to listen to the birds or admire the new geranium that just sprouted in your garden.
In other words, you need to do absolutely nothing. At least sometimes.
Namita Bhandare will write every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org