Friday, December 26, 2008

Haphazard Multitasking

Multitasking comes to women almost magically when they first become mothers. Without that essential survival skill, neither baby nor mother would make it past babyhood. The skill is honed further with the birth of the next kids until the woman is able to the feed one, diaper the next, get the laundry started, answer the phone, catch her favorite soap and cook dinner all at the same time and not miss a beat.

While our modern lives may have complicated a mother's routine some, it has also afforded many simplifications to it. As a result, she may not be multitasking any more than her forbears going back thousands of years. With that, I am a little skeptical about all the
gloom and doom around the fate of multitaskers - there need to be some qualifications to preface this outlook.

When the goal of multitasking (as is often the case in workplaces) is to make up for poor planning and non-existent management, then stress is inevitable. The problem therefore is not with multitasking itself but with everything that it is trying to compensate for. The mother working through her domestic chores as she takes care of her young children, has a plan for the day which will need to adapt based on what emergencies the kids perpetrate on her any given day. She also has a clear endgame - complete chores and tuck kids in for the night.

The same is not true for the office worker who is given constantly conflicting directions by her management, is expected to deliver without having the authority to make any decisions, pitch in for non-performing co-workers - the list is endless. Needless to say she cannot plan that tasks she will need to multiplex and there is never a clear finish line - both plan and goal are moving targets. When she is expected to solve such fundamental problems by being an adept multitasker nothing good can come out of it either for her or for the organization.

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