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Too Much Multitasking

By Lauren Stiller Rikleen

We all have friends like Sue and John. They are the ones who, while on a telephone call at work, scan through their e-mails, shoot back quick responses, and clean out their in-boxes. As they rush off to carpool and attend their kids’ games, they continue their work calls from the car, half listening to the days’ events told from the back seat. At the game, they furtively respond to e-mails on their blackberries and step away to make calls while hoping not to miss an important play. The electronic connections continue through dinner, subsequent baths, and while reading the abridged version of a favorite bedtime story.

It’s just another day for Sue and John. Or is that really ourselves we see? In today’s obligation-filled, overstressed, and electronically diverse lives, most think the key to survival is our ability to multitask. And the key to success depends on multitasking at a speed that requires our brains to focus on our to-do list, barely cognizant of what we are actually doing.

In our breakneck pace to find the solution to our myriad work/family challenges, it appears we are seeking the wrong cure. Recent studies which reveal the negative ramifications of multitasking should cause us to question our relentless pursuit of endlessly inventive ways to accomplish more than one thing at a time.

It turns out that, rather than having the desired effect of freeing us up to have more time, multitasking may be impairing our cognitive abilities. Emerging scientific research demonstrates that our attention overload and constant distractions impair our concentration, increase our stress responses, decrease our effectiveness, and can cause short-term memory loss. Studies also show that multitasking can result in less efficiency by actually slowing us down, because of the time it takes for our brains to adapt to the demands of constantly switching gears.

To understand the relationship between the performance of workers and their always-on technology behaviors, Hewlett Packard commissioned a study of the impacts of “Info-Mania.”  The results showed that the constant disruptions and switching of tasks can cause a 10-point drop in IQ, similar to the effects of missing an entire night’s sleep. In other words the more we try to do, the less capable we may be.

So how do we escape the increasing hold of technology which dominates our time and decreases our effectiveness? How can we prevent the countless distractions from our intended task?

We can control the Info-Maniac in all of us. And we can start by resisting the intrusion of our multitasking lifestyle in our relationships, both at work and at home. This means, first, that we must learn to control our impulses and our use of technology, rather than letting both control us.

The first step should be to “cease and desist” from multitasking when with family. Children are savvy beings who notice when the adults in their lives are constantly distracted. They respond to their parents’ lack of focus by tuning into their iPod, leaving family communication in everyone’s wake.

And our work relationships are suffering as well. According to the HP study, 89 percent of workers find it rude when their colleagues answer e-mails during meetings. And how many of us have simmered silently through lunches while colleagues take incoming cell phone calls.

In just a few short years, we have allowed technology to profoundly alter our lives, and the pace of change is unlikely to abate. We are living in a fast-paced, computer-driven world of You Tube, My Space, and Facebook, and where Time Magazine recognized America’s obsession with technology by naming us all its “Person of the Year.”  There will always be tasks to juggle, e-mail to read, text messages to answer, and, invariably, the teenage love affair with instant messaging will be discovered and adapted into the workplace.

Rather that glorifying our frenetic pace and multitasking abilities, perhaps we should try to recognize and reward mindful behaviors that make other people feel like more than an intrusion on our to-do list. Imagine if we actually start to pay attention to the present, rather than fruitlessly try to get a jump on the future. Focusing on the here and now should be the reality, not a luxury.

We need to be mindful that our face-to-face interactions will always matter. Our families and our colleagues need to know we can be singularly accessible to them. If we are not careful, however, too much multitasking will make us forget.

Read other articles and learn more about Lauren Stiller Rikleen.

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