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Dangers of the Daily Juggling Act

THURSDAY, MARCH 28, 2013

By Karen Kapsanis


I have been trying to write this little essay for weeks, but I keep getting interrupted—by emails beeping, phones ringing, texts boinging, multiple projects (often with the same deadline) closing in, unexpected problems or requests that seem simple to resolve but end up consuming hours ….

I’m guessing that you get my drift, even though I’m an editor and you are in other businesses. I bet your work days have a similar structure—or lack thereof, sometimes, because of so many demands on you, anticipated or not, that make you shift your focus repeatedly.

‘Must Be Able to…’

In fact, some days remind me of part of a job description for a position I once had far away from publishing and long before digital equipment came along to make our work … easier. The description included these somewhat-unnerving words: “must be able to work with constant interruption.”

Today, that would be rewritten as “must be able to multitask.”

buzzaboutscience.com
buzzaboutscience.com
The dangers of distraction have become a topic of growing research.


“Constant interruption” is a decidedly negative phrase—a warning, even, that there would be intrusions that I would need to manage while still doing my “real” job accurately and efficiently.
 
In contrast, from what I can tell, “multitasking” is generally regarded as a virtue, a skill, a desirable ability. But I find the word annoying. It seems to whitewash the potential danger of, well, constant interruption—a break in concentration while trying to do too many things at once.

Distraction’s Dark Side

And that break in concentration can lead to all kinds of mistakes. There are, for example, traffic accidents while driving and talking (even “hands-free”) or misunderstandings in a meeting because most people at the table are checking their smartphones or tablets. (I once saw a Cabinet member scrolling through email or texts on a smart phone while testifying before a Congressional committee.)

Who knows whether or not multitasking contributes to worksite injuries and fatalities, including those on painting worksites?

columbia.edu
columbia.edu
Where’s the line between multitasking and constant interruption?


Now, I know that as companies reduce the number of workers, the ones who are lucky enough to have jobs do take on extra responsibilities. So multitasking isn’t all about interruption. It’s about efficiency and productivity and staying employed and paying the bills.

And I can’t honestly claim that “constant interruption” and “multitasking” are identical. There is more of the unexpected implicit in “constant interruption” and more of the planned or assigned built into “multitasking.”

So, good time management and project planning can alleviate some of the adverse effects of multitasking.

Time for a Test?

There are even tests (developed through what appears to be legitimate research) that evaluate how well you multitask—how productively, how quickly, and how successfully you change from task to task. (See, for example, Test How Fast You Juggle Tasks.)
 
Heavy multitaskers, according to the tests above, tend to need more time to change tasks (even when switching to the same kind of task) than those who are considered light multitaskers.

Eyal Ophir and Clifford Nass, Stanford University / nytimes.com
Eyal Ophir and Clifford Nass, Stanford University / nytimes.com
How good are you at multitasking? Tests can help you evaluate.


And again, not surprisingly, there are reportedly techniques for improving your ability to multitask. (Read, for example, Training can improve multitasking ability.)

Regardless of how much we improve our ability to multitask, I suspect that there will always be a cost to changing focus frequently—on the job or off—whether the price is lower productivity, miscommunication, injury, or something else.

Then the issue changes from how well you multitask to what your multitasking costs you, your company, and your family.

Which raises the question: When is that cost too high?

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Karen Kapsanis

Karen Kapsanis was the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Protective Coatings & Linings when these blogs were written. Post-JPCL, Karen remains an inexplicably lifelong fan of the Green Bay Packers and a surprisingly speedy sprinter.

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Tagged categories: Construction; Health and safety; Information technology; Painters; Painting Contractors; Quality Control; Workers

Comment from Anna Jolly, (3/29/2013, 9:15 AM)

I really like this! It is so true!


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