As I write these words, I am sipping honey tea, trying to memorize the verse of a Carnatic music song by playing it continuously in the background, and watching whether the maid in the next room is swabbing my red-oxide floor with coconut oil as instructed. Nothing special in that—we all multitask. Some of our tasks are supremely mundane, such as my list above. Other people’s tasks are more, shall we say, meaningful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that finance minister Chidambaram’s task-list during his entire life would never have included the words red-oxide flooring; or coconut oil for that matter. His multitasking would have to do with moving markets with a single phone call; talking to bank presidents while fending off the press; all of which probably happen during the time I argue with my maid about the merits of coconut oil.
Recently, however, I received a press release from the American Psychological Association (APA) questioning the whole notion of multitasking. Apparently, several studies show that when we do four or five things at the same time, we are in a state of what consultant Linda Stone calls “continuous partial attention”. Our mind may cast a wider net, receive a wider pool of information but cannot dig as deep. This explains many things, including why James Bond—or Rajinikanth— doesn’t get killed even when he is showered with bullets. Wider body surface, more bullets but less penetration.
Multiplication: Don’t mimic this tool
The point of all these studies is to show that multitasking is not as effective as we think it is. When we multitask, one study says, we use our “Inner CEO” to organize and move between tasks. Too much of this taxes the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The cost of switching constantly between tasks is not as trivial as we think. Researchers say that every task requires a certain mental process and when we keep switching between tasks, it is sort of like the stop-and-go jerks of a car on first gear driven by a novice. Our brain never really cruises with the comfort that comes from engaging in only one task. This “switch cost” increases if the tasks are complex ones. In other words, flipping the bird while driving a car is a no-brainer; but firing someone while driving really taxes your mental coefficient. Far better to pull over.
Most of us in today’s world multitask constantly. We type SMS messages into our phone while we dine with friends; we talk on the phone while watching TV—which we do while reading The Economist in the first place; we read reports while going down the airport escalator and reply to emails on our BlackBerry while waiting in queues. Recently, I began thinking: do we multitask because we have too much to do or too little? In other words, are we subscribing to Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to fill the time available.” One Bengali friend (of course) told me that we all work to escape the terror of confronting Victor Frankl’s “existential vacuum”. He had me depressed for the rest of the day. I didn’t engage in a single task, let alone multitask. I stared my existential vacuum in the face just to prove him wrong.
I doubt that any of us can stop multitasking. But there are a few simple strategies to defray or reduce it. These are small things really but ones that will cause a paradigm shift in your thinking, like realizing that you can actually dunk your samosa in tea and it won’t disintegrate. Some of you probably use all these strategies but I would wager that many more don’t.
• Reduce the time you spend per phone call. Most of us call someone for a reason and then—women especially—get caught in a web of inane niceties that go nowhere.
•Screen phone calls, especially if they come to your cellphone. If you are in the middle of something that involves extensive use of grey cells, don’t answer the phone. Instead, pile up all your calls and call people back on your own time. Similarly, switch off your email browser for an hour and answer all emails in one shot.
• Focus on the job at hand. Oldest advice there is. Everyone from Zen monks to Uzbeki grandmothers say this. But it is hard to do. When I sit down before my computer, for instance, I am fraught with deadlines and work that needs to be finished. What do I do? Surf the Internet; read old emails; chuckle a bit; deride all the forwarders who send me idiotic emails about life on Mars; and for good measure, flame a few people. By the time I get down to the task at hand, an hour has passed.
• Figure out a way to write short but meaningful emails. This is deeply individual but I think a good goal would be to keep every email to two sentences. But within those two sentences, try to be warm, meaningful and, if possible, funny. Trying to bond in two sentences or less is more or less the goal.
• Learn from the auto industry. Assembly lines are superb examples of doing one task after another.
• There is one area, however, where you must multitask. Spousal battles are a perfect time to realize that you have to return calls or fold the laundry. In the other room.
Shoba Narayan stopped sipping tea and listening to music by the end of this column. As for the maid, she has been given the day off. Write to Shoba at email@example.com