All my adult life – which admittedly has not been very long if maturity is the defining characteristic of adulthood – I have been told that in order to be successful, I need to manage time effectively. At face value, this advice seems sagacious since there is only finite time on this planet. But when I’ve thought about it more, I’ve found that those who offer advice on managing time are not interested in whether I pursue activities that might possibly stretch my lifespan by a few years or make it more meaningful or enjoyable: they are talking about multitasking, an unfortunate catchphrase describing the act of performing as many routine chores as possible in the least amount of time. In short, they want me to do more work in the same amount of time.
Is this always good advice? I’m not sure. Here an analogy might be useful to visualize time management. Say, for example, that the total amount of time in which you want to complete an activity is an empty glass. Of course the glass has a defined volume; if you pour more water in the glass than it will take, the residual water will spill over. Say also, for the sake of the analogy, that the least amount of time it takes to do an activity properly is the volume of water that fills the glass to the rim and then some. Time management teaches you different ways to pour the water into the glass with the promise that none of it will spill over.
Obviously, the analogy applies only if you’ve reached the point of maximum efficiency. In this case, you are at the stage where you can not appreciably decrease the time it takes to complete a certain activity unless the situation changes. Those who multitask will say that successful people juggle multiple activities at once, so they have a longer timeframe to complete the task. The implicit argument in this case is less reassuring: why do one activity well, when you can do a number of activities at the same time adequately or poorly?
A motivational speaker might say that human potential is infinite and everything is in the realm of the possible. In a sense, people do get better at what they do with dedication and experience. Here another analogy is useful. In a fixed amount of time, I might be able to juggle one or two balls while a professional juggler might be able to handle four or more. Given the time, inclination, and training, I should be able to learn how to juggle more than the number I currently can. But there are physical and mental limits to what I and other humans can comfortably achieve. For short spurts of time, I might be able juggle multiple balls, but this unnatural activity is clearly unsustainable. Increase the number of tasks anyone needs to concentrate on at the same time or the duration of time needed to maintain this strained state and you have a recipe for failure.
A side effect of the constant urge to do as many things at once is that we’ve created an attention-deficit-prone society in which the ability to concentrate is an endangered skill. Left to our devices, we all seem to fall back on our devices. No one can stand in a train or in a line or on an elevator without looking at smartphones anymore. Everyone is reading and listening to music and sharing their life-story in 140 characters and walking and working at the same time. How many times a day when we should be focusing on the task at hand, do we get distracted by email? If I’m not interested in the minutiae that my friends share on social media, why do I bombard them with the mundane details from my life as well? If I take a photograph every waking minute of my life, don’t I need another life to view them once myself? What were tools which were supposed to help us stay connected and save us time, are taking up more of our time than we’d like to admit.
Of course everyone wants to do more in life. But we need to step back and understand that time deals us two blows simultaneously. The first blow is that with every passing moment there is less of it left in life. Regardless of whether we know how long we are going to live or not, our lives have an expiry date. Death is a real deadline. The second blow is that with every passing moment what is done can’t be changed. The time I spend checking whether I have any new email in my inbox while participating in a conference call is time I have lost forever. I cannot compensate for it by trying to cram a ton of activities into a shortening life and euphemistically calling it quality time.
My one-month-old son whose brain is developing at a faster rate than his father’s is now, knows a thing or two I understood myself before I got infected with multitasking. He is not trying to watch a movie and read a newspaper and have a conversation with the rest of his family at the same time, though the day he will simultaneously process a deluge of information will come soon. Today, as he was on my lap and staring at my face I reached for my smartphone to check my email. Sensing that his father was not giving him his undivided attention made him furious. I got the message and I put the phone down. Somethings are more important. This moment will be gone before I know it. Email can wait.