In praise of single-tasking

09 July 2019

By 10 o’clock this morning, I had read and responded to 16 emails, checked the stats on my Instagram account, paid an invoice, synced my bank account with my accountancy software, updated the plugins on 12 websites, phoned my colleague, chatted with a friend in a neighbouring office, made a coffee and checked the news.

And many of these things, I did simultaneously.

One of the side effects of modern technology, and the tools we use to communicate today, is that they encourage us to do all this – to do more than one thing at a time. To watch a film and try and have a conversation. To read the news and listen to music. To flick from website to website to website.

Not just multi-tasking but mega-multi-tasking.

I think there are three technological developments that have taken place over the last 30 years or so, that when combined, cause us to multi-task like this. If you take these three factors individually, most people would say they’re good things. But when they are combined, an unintended consequence is our unhealthy obsession with doing lots of things at once.

I’m a very strong believer in not just living with technology, but interrogating our relationship with it. Because it’s only when we really grasp what it’s doing to us – how these otherwise good factors combine to cause (usually negative) unintended consequences, that we can adjust our habits to give ourselves a happier, less stressful life.

So let’s look at these three things one at a time.

The first is size.

Looking back at technology as it has developed, it’s obvious that most things have got smaller.

Take the telephone for example. (Not only did it used to be about a foot square and as heavy as a small pile of books, it also used to be tethered to a wall. No chance of taking one with you – you just had to stake out the hall at home for two hours after school so you could carry on the conversation with your best friend that you’d started that afternoon in-person…)

Now it fits in your pocket, and there’s no tethering.

Then there are music players. The TV. Desk diaries. Books.

You’re probably beginning to see a pattern. Most of these examples have not only become infinitely smaller, but they have also been subsumed into one device. And this one device (your phone) houses the following departments:

A weather forecast desk. A concert ticket-buying desk. A cinema. An art workshop. Your sports coach. Your alarm clock. You’re bedtime reading. A whole army of famous people reading your favourite stories, just for you. The world’s biggest encyclopedia. A star atlas. An extremely high-tech imaging department. A mirror. Any recipe book you care to think about. Instruction manuals for every device you own.

Now that all of these (previously separate and usually very large) individual departments and functions sit within easy reach of (or are actually glued to) your hand all day long, it’s not hard to see why we’ve become a mega-multi-tasking society. Check the forecast and book a ticket (while listening to Stephen Fry reading to you). Watch that film and check the miles you’ve walked or cycled that day.

Next up, there’s Speed.

This used to be promoted as a great benefit to society, and often still is. Think of the hilarious adverts (if you’re old enough, or you’ve seen enough old books) about how wonderful it will be when we can fly across the Atlantic (in massive cloth and riveted steel planes), in under 30 hours, while eating a lovely meal… Or those American ads for dishwashers in the 70s that would mean we all have tonnes of leisure time while our machines do all the hard work for us.

But what these early ads didn’t get (or conveniently didn’t mention – they were trying to sell plane tickets and dishwashers after all) is the human tendency that if a thing can be done faster, we’ll do more of them in the time available. So we don’t end up with more leisure time as they suggested, we just end up feeling a bit more stressed. Because we’re writing emails while watching the news. Watching the news while someone’s trying to have a conversation with us.

And finally, there is simplicity.

Many, many things in society over the last 30 or so years have become enormously less complicated. And most people would say that’s a good thing.

Paying for stuff (used to be: writing a cheque; now: waving a card).

Buying stuff (used to be: walking to the shops; now: clicking on a screen).

Talking to more than one person (used to be: phoning them one by one on a landline, if they were in; now: group WhatsApp messages, Facebook, Twitter etc.

However (there was always going to be a however in this article), when you combine the above three things – size, speed, and simplicity, the obvious unintended consequence is that we all start multi-tasking. All of the time. From the moment we wake up to the moment our heads hit the pillow (and beyond).

And it can be exhausting!

But all is not lost.

Having interrogated the way our devices speed us up and stress us out, we can choose to do things differently. Sometimes, deciding to do just one thing at a time can make us feel amazing.

Going to a gig is a good example.

You can either go and enjoy the gig on it’s own merits, or you can (as most of us do) mediate that experience through the screen of a smartphone. Because we are all so used to mediating everything through our smartphones, consciously deciding not to, and just enjoying the moment, can actually be a profoundly moving experience.

Or take reading. As I discussed in my last blog post, the wonderful thing about books is that they have edges… edges that stop us immediately jumping from the absorbing experience of reading to (say) sending an email, or checking our twitter feed.

Curl up with, and get completely lost in, a good book.

And finally, there is the hand-written letter. Yes, we can now email a friend in NYC in 2 minutes, or WhatsApp twenty people in ten seconds, or broadcast to all of our friends in five, but nothing beats the slow, thoughtful writing of a letter, to one close friend, followed by a quiet amble to the postbox.

There are undeniable benefits for all of us from the amazing technological leaps that have taken place over the last thirty years, but sometimes, for our own sanity, it’s worth going back in time, going slow, and reconnecting with the older, simpler and slower ways of doing things. Like letter writing. And savouring the moments they bring.

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