Multitasking and Humanity

Consider these two experiences underscoring the selective misuse of multitasking.

First, I once attended a time management conference where a presenter held a wedge shaped, wood block high in the air. What is this, came the presenter’s ice-breaking question? People yelled out “door stop,” “giant shoe horn” and several other clever and imaginative answers. No, said the presenter. It’s a car’s passenger seat desk. Use it to set up a temporary workstation on the seat next to you, then the next time you stop at a red light, use the time morsel to get a few low-grade bureaucratic tasks completed, like update your address book, check off tasks completed, and the like.

My reaction, frankly? Astonishment. Even though the driver might be stopped, the act of averting eyes from the encircling environment could prove provocative or even lethal. Getting lost in “low-grade” task management can be captivating, causing the driver to miss the traffic light change and even provoke a din of horn blasts from frustrated drivers. The product? Noise pollution and road rage. More important, what if something happened in the intersection that required quick reflexes? It’s difficult to attune and react to environmental changes when focussed on a task. Just ask any grim-faced police officer investigating an accident involving a smartphone texter.

Second, I recently read a time management article extolling the ultimate list of tips needed to prioritize our tasks, streamline our days, and perfect our lives – each tip stamped with a proven and time-tested seal of approval. One interesting tip warned about the pitfalls of multitasking, claiming it to be much more important to focus on a limited number of tasks then spread our cognitive abilities thin focussing on multiple tasks. Fair enough.

The article’s next tip bowled me over. It recommended we use our down time more productively. And the example? “The next time you drive to work, why not use the commuting time to follow up on phone calls?”

What? More driver multitasking? More roadway distractions?

Roadways are convenient, even those plagued with potholes. They are also potentially lethal so they require our continuous and acute attention when behind the wheel.

So, why is it problematic for a person to multitask in the relatively mundane, work-a-day world of a corporate environment but perfectly fine to do so in the fast changing, potentially lethal world of traffic?

It’s an interesting question, with an answer so obvious it ought not to be asked. But who are these presenters and writers? Who do they represent? What motivates them to discount the world of humanity and social responsibility in favour of corporate efficiency? Perhaps we need to spend a bit more time in our corporate evangelism worlds reminding people that while paying attention to work is important, we also need to attend to the humanity around us. Getting work done may be important, but getting to work and home safely is essential.

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