Abolish Slavery!

Years ago, when my friend Victoria proclaimed me a “linear” thinker, I felt insulted. In an age when multi-tasking is deemed essential to success, I was sure I was damned to failure.

Since then, my capacity for multitasking has grown. I’m nervously proud of this. Why nervously? Because now I also see how correct Victoria was—I am linear. I perform better when I do one thing at a time. When I attempt multiple tasks, I grow agitated and inefficient. What about you?

Multitasking’s benefits are less than expected, says the New York Times. As dexterous as your brain is, you can’t do two things equally well at once, not even if you’re a teenager simultaneously broadcasting yourself on YouTube, MyFace and My Second Life. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/business/25multi.html

In tests at the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford University, young adults 18 to 21 years old performed a task 10% more efficiently than those between 35 and 39—when not interrupted. Throw in a ringing cell phone or an instant message, however, and the 30-somethings match the younger group for speed and accuracy.

So don’t be fooled by the next kid retrieving a text message while whizzing past you on his skateboard. He’s probably no better than you at this split-brain balancing act, and maybe less so, because as we age, we grow more adept at screening out interruptions.

This brings us, yet again, to the topic of focus. If you receive what you focus on (and the Law of Attraction says you will) then what do you get when you multitask?

Me, I get a nervous tic!

Whatever you get, it won’t resemble productivity or efficiency. Suppose you’re writing at your computer and “Ding!” you’ve got mail. Like Pavlov’s dog, you instantly shift your thinking from what you were writing to what you could be reading.

So what’s the harm in opening an email the second it arrives? Well, Microsoft has experimented with this scenario and learned that it takes a person an average of 15 minutes to re-focus on what they were doing earlier!

Think about that: how many times a day do you switch your attention from the task at hand to dealing with an interruption sprung on you by a workmate, your PDA or by software that downloads updates automatically to your desktop? The answer may give you some insight into why you’re the one who’s always turning out the lights as you leave the office.

We think we are cleverly placating the time management gods when we allow technology to constantly re-focus our thoughts to accommodate multitasking. Not so! We’re just disrupting our most efficient way of getting things done—namely, one by one. There’s more than a metaphor playing out when someone or something derails your train of thought!

Email, voicemail and other technologies are meant to make us more productive, on the theory that they let us choose how to manage our time and direct our attention. What would your life be like if that’s how things really worked—if technology were a slave to you, instead of the other way around?

This week I’m experimenting with focusing on doing one thing at a time—call it Zen time management. Why not join me? No talking on your cellphone while driving; check your email hourly instead of every five minutes; and (here’s a big one!) don’t play computer solitaire when you’re on the phone.

At this very moment I’m resisting the urge to make coffee or read my email while finishing this column. Whenever I find my writing is consuming hours and hours, it’s because of the multitasking I’m allowing to distract me. Today I’m completing my column in little more than an hour.

Ah, freedom! That’s where my focus is!

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