"To do two things at once is to do neither." So said Publilius Syrus, a Roman slave, in the first century B.C.
"What?" I hear you protest. "But I can simultaneously do my podcast, review that report, field phone calls, burn CD's illegally, watch Dave, send and read text, juggle jelly, feed the tapir and learn my children's names - and that's just in my leisure time.
As for the work place, almost certainly you are expected to be, have claimed to be, or aspire to be, an ace multi-tasker. You may even believe, mistakenly, that you are one. But just remember; computers are, humans are not.
In my view, multi-tasking as a time optimisation tool is a big 21st century delusion - especially amongst our esteemed profession. When you jam all that stuff into your poor overloaded brain, are you being effective - or merely efficient? After all, let's be clear: efficiency is getting things done to worth-while effect. Don't be fooled by self-styled "busy" people whirling round like demented windmills: they're fooling themselves. In fact, according to time leverage expert, Tim Ferriss, as a multi-tasker, you're simply 'doing more to feel productive, while actually accomplishing less'.
It really is just a delusion. Studies have proved time and time again, that you can't simultaneously execute two independent tasks that require conscious thought (breathing, by the way, is unconscious). You can however, shift focus. But shifting from one task to another erodes our effective-ness. Scientists have watched the brain struggle to do this via MRI scanning. The loss of power might be inconsequential if your tasks are undemanding, like talking to a friend whilst washing the dishes. But once you move into the realms of exercising judgment, problem solving, creativity and ideas, then the shift is much more damaging. And dangerous! Mobile phones and drivers? That's now very 21st century.
For proof, the University of California has found that workers take on average 25 minutes to resume their original task after email or telephone interruptions. And University of London research showed that phone and email traffic hits a worker's IQ harder than smoking dope.
Can it get worse?
Oh yes. Researcher David Meyer (University of Michigan) links multitasking to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline and so to loss of short-term memory and potential long-term illness. That's worse! It means humans are just not wired for multi-tasking.
Multi-tasking is now "old century". Widely view as the norm in workplaces, under the erroneous belief that it gets more done, it seems efficient in the short term but is seldom so in the longer term, with its adverse effects on how people learn and retain information. We're experiencing, increasingly and globally and largely because of crowding technologies, a phenomenon term 'continuous partial attention' - the consequences of which are superficial understanding which spawns boredom and impatience.
Take your average business meeting: vibrating mobiles, buzzing Blackberrys, pinging laptops. Whoever decreed the pre-eminence of devices over flesh and blood?
The Single Tasker.
Enter the "new kid on the block", the single tasker. The 21st century way is single-focus, in which effectiveness is valued above busy-ness and time is used more profitably by stressing attentiveness and mindfulness. The obnoxious technological imperative can be beaten with the following steps.
Steps to Success.
Face the music. If you still don't accept the short-comings of multi-tasking, then just 'google' it to check out the multitude of studies on its blight.
Go with the flow. Technology won't disappear. Agrarian society changed with the industrial revolution: our post-industrial lives must change likewise. Re-engineer your job; evolve into the 21st century.
Make it easy on yourself. Don't be enticed by email, text or the phone. Adopt 'batching' - fixed slots of time when you deal with the similar tasks together. In between times, switch off the devices so they can't impact on your conscious flow.
Discover what psychologists call 'flow' - that glorious mastery of a single activity. Where the consummate control exercised by a musician or dancer makes time stop. Indeed balancing a set of accounts used to do it for me.
So you can't match Pavlova in Swan Lake. But does a colleague or friend display intelligent single focus? If so, emulate them - and don't assume you can't learn from youngsters. It's all about modelling behaviour.
Learn about 'mindfulness' and that awareness is more than being simply awake. ('I'm sorry - I was miles away!'). It is a constant focus on awareness more 'mind over mind' than 'mind over matter'. Mindfulness will seemingly add more hours to your day; time slows down, you get more done.
Understand your preferred learning style. And then leverage it - on the job or in the classroom. Most of us never learnt about leanring styles or techniques at school or university. Here's your chance to bring your skills into the 21st century.
My own solution is 'Blended Living': reconciling conflicting issues productively - not multi-tasking, but transforming problems into opportunities. Killing two birds with one stone. You don't for instance take your children into work on Saturdays if you're writing a report - but you might if you're counting paperclips.
'I'm all yours'. How rare, how novel, to have the full attention of another person. Try it. At home and at work. You'll be rewarded.
Focus on Focus
So improve your game by nurturing intelligent, focused attention rather than task switching. These solution help postpone the dark day that information technology governs us completely - while relieving our stress levels.
If you need any further persuasion, here's contribution from Lord Chesterfield. Writing in the 1740's, he cited 'singular focus' not only as an effective method of structuring your time, but also as a mark of intelligence. 'This steady and undissipated attention to one object is as sure a mark of superior genius as hurry, bustle, and agitation are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.'