Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Quote of the Day (Walter Kirn, on ‘The Great Irony of Multitasking’)

“This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we're interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. (Fact, and one more reason the bubble will pop: A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.)”— American novelist, literary critic, and essayist Walter Kirn, “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” The Atlantic, November 2007

The phrase “multitasking” wasn’t around when poor Rosalind Russell filmed her scene as a woebegone telephone operator in the accompanying photo from Auntie Mame in 1958. (The term wouldn’t be coined until 1965, in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of the IBM System/360.)

But, with the rise of the PC and the cellphone, the phenomenon has spread far and wide, as office workers have attempted to keep up with the productivity promised by information processing. (Don’t imagine that the practice is absent from the C-suite: I have even heard of one exec who checked out sports scores on his iPhone during a board of directors meeting!)

Walter Kirn diagnosed the problems with all of this accurately in his Atlantic article 16 years ago, and the passage of time has only confirmed what he thought. Ryan Fuller, Nina Shikaloff, Renee Cullinan, and Shani Harmon warned in The Harvard Business Review back in 2018, “If You Multitask During Meetings, Your Team Will, Too,” going on to explain why they were concerned:

“While multitasking can, at times, be an efficient way to work, most of us have had the experience of sitting next to the person busy clattering on their keyboard during a meeting. It’s distracting. And, ultimately, multitasking is task switching. When we shoot off a quick email during a meeting, we miss that part of the conversation. We – and others – may not even notice, but it means we have gaps in our understanding of what took place. That can lead to different interpretations of a decision, missed opportunities to provide critical guidance, or inconsistent follow through on action agreements. Beyond that, multitasking can signal to others that we don’t value their time or their contributions. When you and your entire team engages in this behavior, little good can come from it.”

Sadly, it may already be too late: The rise of Zoom calls in the pandemic has only encouraged the practice. The consequences of all this, in terms of inattention and stress, remain to be tallied. 

No comments: