Multitasking is Like Doing 3 Jobs for the Salary of 1. It’s Awful, Exhausting, & Overrated


Multitasking is Like Doing 3 Jobs for the Salary of 1. It’s Awful, Exhausting, & Overrated

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

I’ve been spending a lot of time on LinkedIn lately. Because what is a better time to update yourself on all the wonderful things happening in the careers of all the people you secretly despise than Diwali? This is when all the relatives congregate over multiple meals to lament over (read: take enormous pleasure in) the tragic fate of the unmarried (you) and unemployed (again, you) members of the kin? I just love Diwali, don’t you? So I’ve been on LinkedIn for the first time in my life — thank you, economy and its bahi khata-toting guardians — playing a sad drinking game (also a highly recommended Diwali activity), as I scroll through the advertised jobs feed. Take a shot every time you come across a post seeking (unpaid) interns. And another for recruiters looking for editors-in-chief with “upto two years of experience, preferably, but keen freshers may also apply”. (Yes, I’ve been drunk for five straight days now, but that’s not the point.) 

The point is this one quality that seems to be so popular, I can only imagine it gives hiring managers some kind of (gender-neutral) boner because why else would all of them, across all industries, hiring at every level, demand it within prospective employees? The quality I speak of, of course, is multitasking. You could be applying for the job of a receptionist lording over the phones — in which case it totally makes sense — or for the post of a cardiac surgeon (eep!), but multitask you must. Yes, madam, we understand that you currently hold the record for being the youngest person in the world to have performed the hypertrophic cardiomyopathy surgery, but can you also do it while playing the harp? No? Sorry, we won’t be able to offer you this job. No, not even if you agree to slash your expected salary to half a peanut.  

This obsession with multitasking is how I know I’m, well, properly screwed. I suck at multitasking. Never been able to do it, and never understood the charm. What’s so wonderful about being able to do several things haphazardly at the same time when you can politely attend to them sequentially, like nature intended? I like focus. And I like doing one thing at a time, without disturbance. 

I’m one of those crotchety writers who throws hate-filled looks at colleagues for tapping me on the shoulder while I’m“in the flow” and writing, what I imagine was going to be, the most beautiful sentence of my career. No, it doesn’t matter that said colleague’s water broke and by the time I actually set aside that still-incomplete sentence and called the ambulance. I can’t talk while driving, or drive while listening to music. It’s a matter of public safety. I’m not so vulgar as to say that my friend who decided to play Savage Garden while I was driving was responsible for the frightening 45-degree swerve of the car as I lost myself in “I knew I loved you” (how is a girl to keep her head when this song plays?), but let’s face it, she was. I’ve instituted a strict no-conversation-or-music-while-I’m-driving rule since, and needless to say, I’m no longer allowed into the driver’s seat. But given the state of Mumbai’s pothole-ridden roads, frankly, that’s just a welcome fringe benefit of my affliction. 

This growing global fascination with multitasking amazes me, given that the science against it is seriously damning.

This one time some years ago, I tried to sext during an interminable work meeting and let’s just say my editor didn’t see the humour in my lengthy, graphic description of what I really wanted to do on the polished, friction-free table in the boardroom while she droned on about circulation numbers. Seriously, asking HR to lock up the boardroom before leaving at night was a bit of an overreaction. Watches may be becoming obsolete, but I wear mine religiously — the kind that has one dial with no more than three hands strapped on the wrist with a single thick band, not the brain-melting contraptions that come with a 100 mini dials to tell you the atmospheric pressure and groundwater level and other equally useless information, making you wonder if you’re trying to tell the time or launching a spaceship — because I find single-function devices oddly comforting. I sometimes even wish that the technology to integrate cameras into phones would get infected by a virus so we could all just go back to enjoying our meals and lives, instead of performing the simultaneous tasks of living, pretending that ours is the best life ever, and recording every meaningless minute of the ordeal so others can feel appropriately envious. It’s like doing three jobs for the salary of one and it’s awful and exhausting. 

This growing global fascination with multitasking amazes me, given that the science against it is seriously damning. A University of Sussex study found that the MRIs of habitual multitaskers showed lesser density in the emotional and empathy centre of the brain than those who focussed on one thing at a time. Neuroscientists around the world have also concluded that multitasking leads to poorer focus, efficiency, performance, and even lowering of the IQ — by 15 points. A study at the University of London puts a multitasker in the same average cognitive range as an eight-year-old. Basically, recruiters are clamouring to hire eight-year-olds to do jobs meant for adults, and that’s somehow supposed to be a good thing. 

Single-taskers of the world, unite, I say. The only two things it’s okay to do simultaneously is cram fistfuls of caramel + cheese + buttered popcorn into your mouth while watching a movie. Everything else can queue up and wait its turn. There’s no rush, no need to manically switch between multiple undertakings like a lab rat on cocaine. You’ll get to the next task when you finish the first, and not before. It’s time to take over from these godless multitasking anarchists and restore order to the world.