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PM Article -Multitasking is the New Chain-Smoking

Multitasking is the New Chain-Smoking

-Vikas Dhawan

Just sitting was the new Smoking.


Sitting and just Multitasking is the new Chain-Smoking!

Kids and Millenials multiswitch between texting, TV, social media and video games all the time. Without any apparent ill-effects. Most of us too have experienced an added sense of well-being by listening to music during exercise, or by watching TV while on the treadmill.


In fact researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong concluded that multitasking improves the brain’s ability to process and integrate information coming from multiple sources simultaneously. However this research involved the young, and is silent about the long-term effects of media-related or device-related multitasking (DRM).


On the other hand, several independent studies have correlated sustained DRM with reduced density of grey matter in parts of our brain that control our cognitive abilities and emotional responses. Suspected consequences include short-term memory loss, inability to filter out irrelevant information or to prioritize, and a rapidly shortening attention span.


“I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.”

– SH, The adventure of the Mazarin stone


Since our brain is wired to do only one thing at a time, if one loses the ability to prioritize or to recognize the unimportant, chances are our brain could elect to focus on the irrelevant as the primary task, while assigning a critical work-related task as a secondary item on auto-pilot, with possibly ugly consequences for the organization as well as one’s career.


Second, such changes in the hard-coding of our brain, could undo survival mechanisms that evolution has built into humans over hundreds of generations. Loss of the capability to filter out irrelevant data, for instance, could reduce the ability to spot small changes in our environment, which allowed ancient humans to instantly spot danger. Reverse evolution in the making?

“Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

– Mark Twain

If DRM has such drastic consequences, why do people do DRM? Well, why do people smoke? The parallels between smoking and DRM are startling.

Over the decades Bette Davis, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn, as also Don Draper and Shahrukh Khan made smoking look glamorous, sexy and freakin’ cool. And despite the positive correlations to lung cancer, people continue to smoke because they are addicted to the emotional boost that smoking gives them.

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DRM too is highly addictive. Researchers at the University of Ohio found that despite the cognitive degeneration, DRM addicts continue to swear by it as it fulfills their emotional needs, giving them a deep sense of achievement at having accomplished a great deal of work. And even though these notions of productivity are so easily disproved, popular perception has built an aura of super-productivity and super-abilities around DRM, which is hard to beat!

Empirical evidence collated at Stanford proved conclusively that DRM addicts suffer drastic drops in IQ and cognitive ability, and they do not really possess any special skills or characteristics that enable them to work at heightened efficiency or productivity during DRM.

If anything, the reverse is true. These addicts are on their way to becoming chronically distracted mentally dilapidated wrecks who have lost the ability to filter out the irrelevant, forgotten their social skills, and lost the ability to sustain any kind of concentration in the absence of multisensory inputs.

Spotting signs of DRM addiction

This is easy.

They frantically check their phone for messages almost every second, and always have zillions of tabs open on their browsers. They bore easily as their grasshopper minds seek constant stimulation, and lack the ability to take even simple tasks from start to finish in one sitting. And everyone but them realizes how the inability to filter out the irrelevant is slowing them down.

They are highly transactive in their interactions with people, do not understand social nuances and so cannot effectively bond with colleagues, cannot empathize and so are ruthless with people. Most striking is their inflated sense of self-importance, their mighty impatience, and their feelings of superiority over the rest of us – the petty insect brains around them!

And so …

If you are a senior executive who constantly juggles phone calls, text messages, twitter, video calls and emails on multiple projects, you are most likely doing a major injustice to your organization as well as yourself, and need to break out of this destructive loop. Of course, this is easier said than done; For many VP and C-levels, working in DRM mode is inextricably linked to their role.

If so, start putting your house in order: The first step would be to acknowledge the potential harm that DRM can cause to your organization, your career and your mental and physical wellness. If you can, then fire yourself from your current role and reinvent your profile. If you have direct reports who are DRM addicts, help them redesign their roles. Finally stop increasing their count in your flock – if you see signs of chronic DRM in interviewees, think twice about your next step!