Not so long ago, the ability to multitask was viewed as an asset, but the glamour of doing many things at once is fading. The term “multitasking” originated from the computer industry in 1965 (first appearing on paper to describe the capabilities of the IBM System/360), but long before it was part of our lexicon, people were scrambling about trying to accomplish more than one thing at once. Back then, multitasking was simply part of daily life, especially for women who tended to children while doing chores around the house. Whether these undertakings are truly multitasking—performing two or more tasks simultaneously—or simply jumping from one task to the next as priorities shift is debated. But what’s not up for debate is that the actual tasks have changed: Today, people text and drive while listening to music and following GPS directions, respond to emails while talking with friends during dinner, or scroll through their Instagram account while listening in on a conference call and taking notes.
The reason multitasking is now under fire is because it doesn’t actually make us more efficient. A recent article in The Guardian, titled “Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain,” cites the work of neuroscientists who describe how distraction stimulates our brains in a pleasing, yet ineffective, way. According to psychologist Glenn Wilson who’s quoted in the piece, being distracted by an unread email in our inbox, can reduce our effective IQ by 10 points. Maybe multitasking is best left to computers that have different operating systems.
With that in mind, consider this: Could you be more productive by doing less? Could an email composed without distraction be more concise, clear and effective? Could a well-constructed email even reduce the flurry of back-and-and-forth follow-up emails? If that hypothesis holds true (try it), how could such an experiment expand? Think of the possibilities: texting, eating, listening, driving…
Actually, let’s stop with driving for a minute because no one can debate the merits of driving without distraction. The U.S. Department of Transportation cites that 10 percent of fatal crashes, 18 percent of injury crashes, and 16 percent of all motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2012 were distraction-affected accidents. If we can’t drive well distracted—something many of us have been doing far longer than texting or emailing—it stands to reason that we probably don’t do much else well while distracted.
We may not notice that we’re cutting off other cars as we switch lanes or that we’re not listening attentively during a conference call, but those around us notice as they swerve to avoid a collision or have to repeat themselves because we weren’t listening fully.
Much like people are finally beginning to prioritize driving above texting, maybe it’s time to reset some other priorities, starting with the inbox. How many emails truly require interrupting what you’re doing to be read immediately? How long could your inbox survive without constant attention? A half hour or four hours? Think on it and then try ignoring your email for that set period of time and focusing instead on other matters. And when you do make time to read and respond to email, bring each message your undivided attention—unless, that is, you’re such a great writer that you can spare the 10 IQ points in your communications.