Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, there was a kind of exuberance about the possibilities of multitasking. Advertisements for new electronic gadgets celebrated the notion of using technology to accomplish several things at once.
But more recently, challenges to the ethos of multitasking have begun to emerge.
Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving. Several states have now made that particular form of multitasking illegal.
In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, a research study found that, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”
For the younger generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. But this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being. When people do their work with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.
If you haven’t read Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Work Week, where in addition to priceless gems on how to work less and achieve more, he discusses the benefits of “single-tasking,” I highly recommend it.