My son passed his driving test a few months back, but he lacks confidence in handling Klang Valley’s road and whenever I have the chance, I would be his “driving instructor” and let him drive. A few days back when I was being “chauffeured” home I noticed a pretty young thing (PYT) driving beside my car (but slightly behind) but she did not seem to pay any attention when my son indicated to join her lane on the highway. As it was the rush hour on New Klang Valley Expressway, the traffic was bumper to bumper. It gave me a chance to observe (and tried to find out) why the PYT was not paying attention to my son’s signal: she was talking on the mobile phone! As my car and PYT’s car were side by side for over 5 km, it gave me more opportunities to observe the PYT further. After finishing her mobile phone conversation, the PYT went on to send some text messages or instant messages on her mobile phone, then a few minutes later, she whipped out a makeup box with a mirror and went on to apply something on her face. All the while we were travelling at about 25 km/h in parallel! I guess the PYT was just multitasking. Luckily for my son and I (and for the PYT), she was a better driver than my son and no untoward incident occurred.

I have read Joe Kraus’s blog posting on multitasking and watched his TED Talk video entitled, “Slow Tech” . This was what Kraus said about multitasking: “It’s shown not only that we’re dumber when we do this (an average of 10 IQ points dumber……), but that we’re also 40% less efficient at whatever it is we’re doing.” This probably sums up why multitasking is bad for your work efficiency or whatever you intend to do.

A few weeks ago I  completed the Massive Open Online Course entitled “Understanding media by understanding Google” by veteran journalist and Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy of Northwestern University, Professor Owen Youngman. One of the written assignments asked, “If someone instinctively and repeatedly picks up a mobile device to consume media while engaged in another activity, which of the following do you believe is more likely to be true of that person: (1) he/she is engaged & seeking to enhance and deepen the first activity or (2) he/she is bored & is seeking to be distracted from the first activity?”  How often have you encountered colleagues (or even yourself) in a formal meeting doing just that: whipping out the smartphone and checking for emails, SMS, BBM, Twitter etc. every now and again? Is this multitasking or it this easy distraction? Is the person bored? In most cases, I think the person was forced to multitask. Sound familiar?

With the current “24 by 7” business operating environment, clients and colleagues across continents and many time zones have the expectation of having their needs taken care of & queries answered instantly. Thus it is inevitable that disruption and distractions from these sources via the smartphone happen during all hours of the day and nights. It seems that the 8-hours working day has now been, with the “always-on-always-connected” mobile internet, replaced by the 18-hours working day (with 6 hours left for sleep). I really enjoyed my stint working with Pearson plc where my British boss would not dared to call me after work and during public holidays. It could have been the Britishness in him but I guess the man was worried that if he were to call me, I would reciprocate when he would be on his holidays sunning himself in some beach with his family!

I think as a superior you should not demand that regardless of the hour of the day/night or the staff’s current situation, he/she must answer your text messages, emails etc. within 30 minutes or some tight timeframe. Despite the disruptions and distractions involved, your staff will have no choice but to check up on his/her smartphone periodically watching out for text messages, instant messages, Blackberry Messages, Tweets etc. from you and multitask.

The best thing to do, it seems, is not engage in multitasking at all, which is just fast switching between tasks. You are spreading your mental capacity and attention too thinly. If you look at a juggler, he/she can juggle 3, 4 or even 5 items at most. But in today’s work environment, most staff are expected to juggle many more tasks than 5, with some staff ended up not “catching” any single item. I think bosses should recognise the peril of multitasking. Like the PYT, if she were to multitask more strenuously while driving, she might end up causing a car accident!

I think we cannot change the current work and business environment in light of the advance in technology. The best for one to do is to prioritise and perhaps do what I call “semi-multitasking”. You should have all the tasks in a prioritized list, instead of working your way down the list,  you should go on to commence work on every task in the list but paying more attention in accordance to the priority and importance of the task. In this way, you will have made at least a start in each task assigned and have a better chance of completing each with maybe not 100% but at least close to 80 or 90% efficiency . I think your IQ dip for each task will be much less than 10 points! It is also good to separate routine multitasks from ad hoc tasks because routine tasks usually have tighter deadlines. If possible enlist the help of and encourage ownership of tasks by your staff and you may find that your collective efficiency and IQ go up significantly.

There is a current TV advertisement about a secretary having to multitask, she needed to arrange for a parcel to be sent and to book a flight for her boss both at the same time. She ended up sending the parcel by business-class flight and the boss on a tin-pot airline flying with chicken in the plane. That sums up the peril of multitasking! I think as supervisors, managers or bosses if we expect our staff to multitask, we should be prepared for our staff’s inability to perform with 100% efficiency and effectiveness.


Dr. Chow Yong Neng contributed this piece as a columnist of Focus Malaysia in November 2013, using his moniker of “Plantcloner”. This is the unedited version of his work. He juggles more than 5 tasks in any working day. With “semi-multitasking” he manages to minimise “accidents” and still achieve a reasonable efficiency & effectiveness in the tasks he accomplished.



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