Doing one thing at a time…
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Doing one thing at a time…

July 15, 2019

By Dr. R. Balasubramaniam

It is indeed amazing to see how people are constantly rushing ahead with their lives. All of them seem to be in such an undue haste. Very few actually stop, take a pause and ask themselves why they are in such an undue hurry. It seems as though man is engaged in a race all his life. And in order to get a lot of things done, one usually ends up doing many things at the same time.

In order to constantly stay at the top, we are taught from our childhood that doing many things simultaneously is a virtue and something that we need to train ourselves to do. One of the favourite management jargons today is ‘multi-tasking’. People who cannot do this are considered to be incompetent and lacking in the skills that today’s world demands.

Students of Business are taught lessons on multi-tasking and people attend expensive workshops with the hope that they can do well in multi-tasking.  But is it really possible for a person to multi-task?  Would one consider multi-tasking a leadership virtue?  Does this mean that people trying to exercise leadership necessarily be experts in multi-tasking too? 

Let us understand what exactly does multi-tasking actually mean and if it is realistically possible for a person to multi-task and achieve the desired level of results?  Multi-tasking is the ability of a person to do two or more tasks simultaneously at the same time.  Neuro-biologically speaking, the brain is not really capable of doing multiple tasks at the same time. Imagine 3 people talking to you at the same time.  Beyond the challenge of following what each one is saying; the chances are that one will feel irritated and unable to make sense of the conversation.

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 Research undertaken by cognitive neuroscientist Dr. David Streyer indicates that less than 2% of the people he studied were truly capable of doing two tasks at the same time.  98% of the people are considered incapable of undertaking more than one task at a time. While we can teach ourselves to become competent in doing multiple tasks, it is rare that we can gain proficiency in doing them at the same time.

Dr. David’s research also indicates that more than 25% of a workday is actually wasted by people attempting to multi-task. Multitasking is also known to increase stress, stimulate behavioural problems and increase the production of Dopamine in the brain.  Multitasking is also known to cause an increase in human errors. Such errors have been recorded in doctors and nurses trying to multi-task in operating rooms, in pilots during flights and for most people while driving a car.  This is exactly why driving while speaking on the cell phone cannot have the driver’s full attention either on the road or on the conversation that he is engaged in.

The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is considered critical for several leadership functions.  This is the part that is responsible for Critical -thinking, Problem-solving, Strategic-planning and Decision-making. In the leadership language, the pre-frontal cortex is the region for executive decision-making.  And this is the part of the brain that is under enormous stress when one is multi-tasking, and this results in most of the leadership functions being numbed or affected negatively. 

Beyond neuro-biological reasons, leadership demands staying focused and giving one’s full attention to the task that one is performing.  This is something that we need to consciously teach ourselves to do. In the name of efficiency, many of us actually fritter away our energies in multiple directions without giving a thought to how effective we are.

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Swami Vivekananda spoke about the virtue of focusing our energies on taking up one task and doing it well. His famous words were, “Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, and every part of your body be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success…”

Giving our full attention to one idea at a time is also something that the world of leadership is recognising today. Experts are coming to the conclusion that good leaders are the ones who give their complete attention and energy to undertaking a task and this is achieved by these leaders constantly operating from the realm of the present. They are neither weighed down by the burden of the past or the uncertainty of the future. Living and operating in the present enables them to give every bit of their time and effort to the task on hand and this helps them become successful.

These are also the leaders who eventually develop the capacity to undertake diverse activities, but they are always doing one thing at a time. This differentiates them from the world of multi-taskers who have come to believe that one needs to be doing multiple things at the same time. Giving our complete self to what we are doing not only helps us in completing the activity successfully but is also spiritually elevating. It provides us the platform to experience the oneness of existence by becoming one with the task that we are accomplishing. And in this oneness, we can truly understand and relate to the central message of the Bhagavad Gita of not becoming unduly attached to the fruits of our actions.

[Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, Founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement & GRAAM, teaches leadership at Cornell University and IIT-Delhi.  He can be reached at: [email protected]]

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