The Perils of Multi-Tasking

Multi-Tasking: Doing many things to achieve nothing

Friends who stopped texting me every time they eat Indian food + Teresa,

If you find yourself home on Friday night because you have Ebola, are still recovering from the fallout of globalization, or you realize youre not 22, you can treat yourself to an hour of Shark Tank. The premise of this show revolves around decent and hard-working individuals who present their start-up ideas and then proceed to get mercilessly bitch slapped by five billionaires who use the show as a replacement for therapy (i.e. Adam Smiths wet dream). 

The one common theme you hear from all five investors is the creed of multitasking. Marc Cuban, a judge on the show and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, claims, “I work 20 hours a day and Im usually doing three things at the same time.” The head Grinch on the show, Mr. Wonderful, proudly stated in one episode, “You have to work very fast, give up every other hobby you have, juggle thirty things at once, and then maybe you might make it.” The notion that multi-tasking is the key ingredient in success isn’t confined merely to the egalitarian class. In a survey by the Washington Post in July 2014, over 78% of Americans believe that if they arent taking on multiple tasks at once they will lose their job. Another report put out by the Harvard Business Review last summer noted that out of 300,000 job postings put up in 2015, an astonishing 82% demanded prospective employees excel at multi-tasking.

Even with the new push for mindfulness (our main subject for my next blog), Americans are more enamored with multi-tasking. Speed evangelicals argue that a swifter and more hands-full approach to life leads to more time, better productivity, and greater prosperity. However, evidence shows that all three of these notions couldn’t be further from the truth. There are two prime examples that prove meticulous planning over multi-tasking proves to be a superior method.

Even in todays digital and app-service age, working professionals are finding it harder to allocate time to all the endeavors they value. In a CNBC Europe survey taken in March 2015, only 4% of millennials, in the world, felt they have experienced a day where they accomplished completing all the tasks they wanted (tasks included beanie shopping, beach selfie Instagramming, and wearing ones Amnesty International sweatshirt they bought at Whole Foods).

Correspondents on the financial network suggested the quick fix solution is juggling more things at once. But wellness researchers disagree. MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller argues “our brains are not wired to multitask well…when people think theyre multitasking, theyre actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, theres a cognitive cost.”

Ariana Huffington, the first deportee under a Donald Trump administration, believes that trying to work on multiple projects at once increases error and leads to a counter-psychological effect that elevates a humans desire to achieve more in the current time period.

In her books, “Thrive” and “Sleep Revolution” the former Greek blogger chronicles numerous examples in the investment banking industry where young professionals are pushed to take on more tasks, adopt “volunteer” initiatives, and handle requests from multiple managers. After the 2008 financial crisis, numerous reports highlighted many investment bankers missing simple mathematical errors, forgetting to place risk-averse trades, missing client meetings, and being too tired to provide employer feedback. Since the Reagan “greed is good” era in the early 80’s, the number of suicides in high pressure jobs (banking, hospital care, police work) has skyrocketed by 256%.

The perils of multi-tasking are not simply confined to the finance industry. Recent reports out of Silicon Valley are proving even the smartest IT professionals are getting crushed by an over-load of work. TechCrunch reports more than 38% of support services at start-ups are hiring more workers and eliminating the on-call component of ones job. Zenefits, a once promising start-up in SF, folded after poor management decisions. For starters, Zenefitis boasted that their managers were skilled professionals who were jacks-of-all trades (except for the skill of running a profitable business #boomroasted) and oversaw a number of departments.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to interview with this company. Back then Zenefits had a staff of over 200 people, but there was no receptionist to meet me and show me to my interview. After 30 minutes, two people rushed in to ask me questions and apologized because they had just learned they were on the interviewing committee.

The common pushback from those who defend a busier lifestyle argue it leads to a more productive society. But does it?

Now there many methods and metrics to measure productivity. However, there is only one word to call someone who mentions the word productivity in a conversation and that word is “douchebag”. Every year, Forbes magazine ranks the productivity levels of 180 countries. In the past ten years, America has never been ranked as the most productive nation in the world.

But this shouldn’tt be a surprise. Behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that the human brain shuts down if they are in same arena for more than seven hours. Despite the illusion of our workforce duties being more dynamic, we know this to be false. It should be no surprise that the monotony of an average blue AND white collar job leads to an eventual decline in cognitive thinking.

While many multi-tasker enthusiasts acknowledge the mental trade-offs of juggling a number of projects, they forcefully argue that this burden bears its fruit in economic gains. This is another unfounded myth. Again, there are a number of metrics to measure economic success. For this blog we will focus on the quantitative calculation of a worker in the developed world and the lead sectors that lubricate the global economy.

The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation Development), ranks the financial output of the standard worker in the developed world. If youre gotten this far in the blog, it will come as no surprise that the OECDs statistical ranking places the United States at 18th. Despite US laborers working more hours than any other industrialized nation, we still are less economically productive than four nations who cap their work weeks at 35 hours.

Even if you qualify that as an objective measure we can still point to the two aforementioned sectors, finance and technology, as an economic reason NOT to engage in excessive multi-tasking. Since 2008, finance and technology have been the only industries in America that have grown in number of employees and capital allocation. Both of these industries have been developed by former McKinsey and Bain consultants who pride themselves in engaging in the multi-tasking arena. However, both of these have succumbed to the short-sighted thinking of corporate strategic consulting.

While these two industries were the growth darlings in the early 10s, gains in tech and finance are starting to slowly erode. In the past five years, The Economist points out that the number of hedge funds have dropped by nearly 54% and the number of tech companies have swindled from 7,200 to 4,500. Twitter, once considered to be a tech giant, has yet to make a profit and is in the process of down-sizing. Financial gurus tab this as smart fiscal consolidation, but this statement contains more bullshit than a Donald Trump African-American outreach speech. From the laymens perspective you probably couldn’t name a successful merger in the past five years and you would be right. A staggering 82% of mergers in the finance and technology field have been deemed fiscal failures.      
So this begs the question, why should we adopt a mindset that has dulled our creative ability, tarnished our overall mental state, and provided us with no fiscal gain? The answer is that we shouldn’t.

Many of you would argue that a society with a systematic way of life in the corporate world is a hipsters heaven that would not be possible. However, there are many moments in history that would prove you wrong. In the course of researching for this blog, I found hundreds of large scale projects from the earliest construction of temples in Asia to Portugals policy for decriminalization as evidence that meticulous planning trumps multi-tasking. Still, I will only focus on two projects that are near to my heart.

When tracing the roots of the tech industry one looks back to a top-notch institution in Silicon Valley. Known as the birthplace of Google, Tesla, and Yahoo!, Stanford University has been deemed the prime incubator for technological innovation. Youd think that the founders of this institution would be proud of the multi-tasking of the tech sector, but you would be wrong.

In honor of his son who passed from typhoid, railroad tycoon and former California governor, Leland Stanford sought out to build one of Californias first non-denominational and co-ed universities. In 1891 Stanford opened its doors to its first students and in 1893 Leland Stanford died. The school struggled financially for several decades after Mr. Stanfords death. Local papers decried this university as “academic boondoggle” and an “educational nightmare that couldn’t teach Japanese immigrants how to use chopsticks.”

But, Leland’s model was different in one key way. The former Governor purposely built an institution where roles and responsibilities were more segmented than any other college at that time.  The Silicon Valley-based campus aspired to build programs where teachers would solely teach. Leland and his predecessors prohibited professors taking on side projects. Stanford University was the first academic institution to carve out programs that focused on endowments, creating public-private partnerships, and student mentorship programs.

When many academic institutions folded or increased tuition during the Great Depression and in the financial crisis of 2008, Stanford did neither. Admittedly, the universitys current core goals and student body deserve a fair amount of criticism, but no one can deny that Stanford has built the foundation to be a long lasting elite institution.

While this blog has focused on sectors shaping our current society, we humans are also affected by the places we visit. For me that would be the Taj Mahal.

On May 15th, 1632, during John McCains sweet 16 birthday party, Shah Jahan, a Moghul emperor in Northern India, commissioned the construction of a monument in honor of his wife. Architects of the romantic shrine estimated it would be completed in five years. The Taj Mahals final complex was built in 1652 and Mr. Jahan deemed the shrine to be finally finished in 1665. What was the hold up?

During the initial stage of development, two architects were tasked with developing the budgets, gathering workers, and developing blue prints for each corridor of the Taj Mahal. But in 1637, Shah Jahan halted construction and hired five more individuals to oversee the project. Unknown to him at the time, Mr. Jahan not only created what would be one of the Seven Wonders of the World but also a new job, the project manager.

Mr. Jahans meticulous and methodical approach paid off. Despite Indias rampant government corruption, fiscal imprudence, and horrendous environmental record that would make Leonardo Dicaprio weep organically filtered tears, the Taj Mahal has largely been immune to all these problems (for nearly 400 years!).

Mr. Jahan was such a forward thinker that in the mid 1600s, he purchased more land for public transportation. The Taj Mahal has never been attacked nor has it been the center of property debate. The commission has always funneled donations back to maintain the building and no government official in Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, has EVER been implicated in a money laundering scheme.

With technology, constant public criticism, and shareholders having a greater stake in how businesses run I will admit society may no longer produce a new elite institution or a historic monument. But that doesn’t mean we cant recalibrate our lifestyle. As someone who recently turned 30, I understand that even daily activities once deemed effortless have become ever more arduous (i.e. stretching). However, nothing is stopping us from slowing down and prioritizing one task at a time. If anything, take your cue from the hosts of Shark Tank. In Season 3, all five “Sharks” demand to cut down on pitch meetings and restructure the show where they analyze one investment at a time.

When asked about the change in format, Mr. Cuban replied, “When you look at one thing at a time, youre more focused, you learn quicker, and you just make better decisions.”