Soch with The Coach: Multi-tasking, task-switching and other multi-menaces

Recently, a page on X named Peak Bengaluru Moments shared an image of a woman shopping for shoes while on a work call. What does it say about us, are we well-equipped to become the master of all trades?
Bengaluru woman shopping while working
Bengaluru woman shopping while working(Source: @Kaey_bee via X)

By now, all of you must have watched various viral videos that surface on social media that show, among other things, the dual lives people sometimes lead. In one such instance, "a peak Bengaluru moment" as it was termed, went viral on social media depicting a woman shopping in a shoe store while attending a virtual team meeting. She was doing so whilst holding her laptop and still indulging in some good retail therapy.

This has led to a debate on whether it can be termed as smart work. Should we be inspired by it or laugh at it?

Let's dive in!

We have definitely come across several people around us who may be required to attend an important work call while on vacation or while doing a random chore such as walking their pet.

Some people have ridiculed the kind of work ethic that has forced us to become slaves to our jobs. Some people may call it motivating, given how one can carve their personal space, balancing work deftly at the same time. Are we wired to do this? Most would say no, maybe even I would. But did you know that there's something called Task-Switching?

Straight Talk Express: My honest opinion
Let me come to you with an innovative approach. Although, I am choosing to explain both sides here to allow you the liberty to decide what's best for you.

However, please note that there is a difference between the terminologies multi-tasking and task-switching, which I shall be delving into now.  

Task switching can be described as our cognitive ability to shift our focus immediately. Many of us unconsciously do it. Although it can be quite a task to perform efficiently, yet it brings us to our intended goal.

The Good:

1. Enhancing efficiency and flexibility
Multitasking allows most individuals to make the most of their time, especially in roles that demand constant connectivity. The best example can be working parents, which equips them to be able to attend a meeting while running errands. This can be a lifesaver, providing a balance that traditional work environments might not offer usually.

2. Technological enablers and catalysts
With the proliferation of smartphones, smartwatches, other connected devices and everything else that's getting "smarter" today, staying productive on the go has never been easier. Apps that sync calendars, task lists, and communication platforms empower individuals to manage work and life seamlessly. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, multi-tasking has, indeed, never been easier.

3. Empowerment and autonomy
The ability to multitask effectively can be seen as a form of empowerment. It provides autonomy over one's schedule and the freedom to prioritise tasks based on immediate needs and long-term goals whilst ensuring adequate levels of work-life balance.

One added aspect is that you are, at times, combining a physical and a mental task and the best example I can provide as a reference is when we're in the gym and listening to music or a podcast as we're working out. It helps us relax or gain some amount of knowledge whilst we are striving to keep ourselves fit.

The reason why I suggest this is because the whole reason it works to our advantage is that listening to music or a podcast shifts our attention or, at times, drives us to do the gruelling task of working out.

However, do note that equating two major tasks is not similar to working out while listening to music. 

Can we really multitask?

Though we commonly believe that we can "wear many hats", we never dive deep into the understanding that we are spreading ourselves "too thin" when we attempt to multi-task.

The Bad:
1. Quality and focus

Though Multitasking allows most individuals to make the most of their time, studies have shown that multitasking can lead to lower quality of work. Another buzzkill is the reduction in attention span, which has been directly linked to individuals who have constantly made task-switching a characteristic trait.

When this constant habit is formed, it can lead to other mental health challenges like constant irritability, performance anxiety and more. We rarely put in effort to understand why this happens and it is because when the brain switches between tasks, it takes time to realign, reorient, and refresh its approach which results in errors and omissions.

2. Work-life imbalance
During earlier days, about four to five decades ago, our parents and grandparents had an amazing quality of life which stemmed from their clearly defined work-life balance. Once they were out of the office, their work life stopped there!

I saw the beginning of issues between the two when the Blackberrys came into existence and handcuffed themselves to us.

Fast forward, the same "technological enablers and catalysts" that I have spoken about above have made our lives a living hell! I use such a strong word as we are unknowingly always working and this has forced us to integrate both work and life into one, shopping while on team meetings may also illustrate the inability to carve out time for the former because of this intertwining and merging of professional responsibilities with personal activities.

3. Perception and professionalism
Empowerment and autonomy aside, there is also the aspect of how multitasking is perceived by others. Especially with how we have almost "Zero Privacy" thanks to phones in every hand, almost everything being posted on social media and CCTV cameras everywhere. Attending a work call from a shop or supermarket might be seen as unprofessional or as a sign of complacency, potentially affecting professional relationships. The organisation might not take it too kindly as well.

It's always not about "tipping the scales" but about finding the "right balance".

I can quite confidently say that multi-tasking is neither wrong nor right. It is neither entirely beneficial nor wholly detrimental. The key lies in finding a balance that ensures the right focus is given to the right tasks. Of course, leveraging the advantages of technology while protecting personal time and well-being is going to be the cherry on the cake. But how do we get there?

1. Setting boundaries: Establish clear boundaries between work and personal time. Use technology to schedule 'focus time' for deep work and 'off time' for relaxation.

2. Prioritisation: Not all tasks require immediate attention. Prioritise tasks based on urgency and importance, and delegate when possible.

3. Mindful multi-switching: Engage in multi-switching mindfully by pairing tasks that complement each other, like the example of the gym mentioned above which gives you a better result rather than combining activities that demand high cognitive resources.

As I conclude today's conversation, the woman attending a virtual meeting while shopping is emblematic of a larger trend in our work culture. Whether viewed as a laughing stock or an inspiration, her actions reflect the complex interplay of dedication, efficiency, and the struggle for balance.

And as we navigate this complex landscape, my sincere suggestion would be to focus on the larger picture, thereby, asking you all to focus on the quality of life which will only improve with clear compartmentalisation of our work and our personal lives.

I'd like to end with one of my original funny quotes that can be used in this context:

"It takes a woman nine months to give birth to a healthy baby, but today, we're trying to multitask and put our hands into so many things in parallel that we are expecting a healthy baby to be delivered in one month by employing nine mothers!" 

With regards and laser-focus on your betterment,
Your beloved Coach,
Adarsh Benakappa Basavaraj

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