Do one thing at a time! | Sunday Observer

Do one thing at a time!

17 October, 2021

I was watching how a counter officer was working at a busy post office in the city. People were queuing to buy stamps and stationery, hand over foreign parcels, send register letters and make inquiries about lost letters. He was doing many activities at the same time without losing his cool.

His boss was happy that the officer could handle many tasks at the same time. At the end of the day, he feels fully exhausted. He realises that he had not charged the correct postage for a foreign parcel. He had also overpaid some money to a customer. Now, he has to pocket out a big sum of money. That is the price he has to pay for multitasking.

Times have changed. Our values have stood the test of time. What we thought to be admirable has turned out to be unprofitable today. We are beginning to realise that multitasking is nothing but a myth. The multitasking counter officer got exhausted and frustrated at the end of the day. Such frustrating events take place when you try to perform two or more incongruous chores simultaneously. Bosses and the public may admire a skilful multitasker as a superhuman being. However, the biological reality is that when we try to do too many tasks at the same time, we will not be able to do anything properly.

The concept of multitasking originated as a computer jargon for the situation when the CPU (central processing unit) switches back and forth between different programs. As we are not computers, the human capacity for simultaneously handling multiple tasks has been studied for a long time. Even in the Digital Age, we are sometimes compelled to do many activities at the same time.

Divided skills

When you are writing an email to one of your colleagues, the telephone starts ringing. While talking on the phone, you keep on typing your email. As your time and skills are divided for the time being, you have no occasion to check the spelling and grammar of your email. If you pay no attention to the caller, he will ask, “Are you listening to me?”

You might argue that we do one task and then do the other, therefore, it is not multitasking. Sometimes, the human brain can handle multiple tasks. However, there is an associated risk in it. You will be losing a certain amount of time when you do task-switching. There are, of course, certain activities you can do at the same time. For instance, you can chat on the mobile phone while pouring a cup of coffee. However, while doing the two activities, you cannot possibly keep an eye on your baby. When there is a bottleneck of information queuing, you are liable to commit serious mistakes.

There was a child who used to do his homework while listening to the radio. He did not realise that songs and music are distractions to his studies. As a result, he flunked the examination. When you drive a vehicle, you have to process multiple cues to safely navigate the roads. You have to monitor your speed, scan ahead for upcoming hazards, glance at your side-view and rear-view mirrors. While doing all these activities, you have to keep the vehicle in the correct lane and adhere to traffic rules. At a time like that, it is dangerous to chat on the mobile phone or with a fellow passenger. What is worse is that some drivers try to eat a snack without stopping the vehicle.

Child endangerment

A woman driver in Ohio was charged with child endangerment after being spotted breastfeeding her while driving. Another woman in Illinois failed to notice a red light as she was painting her nails while driving. Eventually, she slammed into a motorcyclist killing him. Nearer home, an executive was found fighting with his wife in the front seat while driving. They are serious types of multitasking.

The long-term effects of multitasking can be just as bad for your health. Overloading your brain with multitasking will lead to stress. A study of Microsoft employees found that each interruption required them to take an average of 15 minutes to get refocused on challenging mental tasks. Multitasking can also affect human relationships. Very often your loved ones will ask, “Are you listening to me?” If you know the human limitation, you will not resort to multitasking.

The trouble with us in the Digital Age is that we think we are being efficient by switching between tasks at breakneck speed. At least, you have to realise that multitasking is a modern-day malady.

One of the strong opponents of multitasking is Dr Clifford Nass, a Professor of Communication at Stanford University in the United States. He said, “We’ve done a number of studies that prove people who multitask frequently show cognitive deficits.” In other words, they are less able to filter out irrelevant information and pay attention to a given task.

Efficiency drops

In some situations, however, multitasking may be harmless. However, you cannot do any serious work while multitasking. This is because your efficiency drops when you do so. When you write, think or solve an important problem, your mind must be free from distractions. The best way to avoid multitasking is to shift between tasks in quick succession. As you shift focus, you force your brain to stop and regroup.

Neuroscientist Dr Rene Marois said, “Despite having these incredibly complex and sophisticated brains with 100 billion neurons processing information at rates up to a thousand times a second, human beings have a crippling inability to do two incompatible tasks at once. With all such authoritative statements, young people still think multitasking is the only answer to our pressing problems.

Young students doing their homework while watching a popular television program have become a common sight. At the same time, they chat with their friends on the mobile phones. In between they gulp down some junk food. In their adult life, they embark on multiple jobs. Although they get a mental satisfaction, their productivity remains low. This is like buying a lottery ticket dreaming about a brand new car. When you win a consolation prize of Rs 20, your hopes are dashed to the ground.

As Todd Oppenheimer said our love of technology combined with multitasking has turned us into adrenaline junkies. But we should try to do one task well rather than doing a lot of tasks at the same time. Otherwise, the end result will be disastrous. We are running short of great thinkers and innovators. The Buddha, Jesus Christ and modern-day thinkers such as Bertrand Russell never resorted to multitasking. That is the secret of their remarkable greatness.

[email protected]