Beware the Multitask Monster

The Sydney Morning Herald

A HALF-EATEN sushi roll. Paperwork stacked in different-sized piles like a bar chart measuring inefficiency. A computer desktop strewn with the debris of some digital cyclone. These are the first signs of Obsessive Compulsive Multitasking (OCM), a disorder that affects hundreds of thousands of clerical workers around the country.

Aside from a messy workspace, symptoms of OCM include twitching “text thumb”, half-finished reports, broken conversations and ugly facial growths, otherwise known as “hands-free headsets”. But perhaps the most damaging effect of the disorder is wasted time.

One Microsoft study found that after answering an email, employees took an average of 15 minutes to get back to what they were doing. Clinicians call the time wasted changing from one task to another a “switch cost”. The problem is exacerbated by workus procrastinatus, a particularly virulent strain of apathy found in depressing office environments. Some employees have sunk so far into lethargy they incur switch costs while moving from one distraction to another, meaning they’re essentially wasting time while wasting time. They’ve deteriorated to the point where they can’t even procrastinate efficiently.

OCM is highly contagious. The condition is spread through email to email contact. Once the multitasker has your email address, he’ll immediately bombard you with hundreds of vague, work-related messages. “3rd qurt figures need work asap.” Your only option is to call to clarify. Now the multitasker has your number, he’ll employ another medium: SMS. Pretty soon you’re poking him on Facebook to send that tweet about that call he said he’d memo through.

You can also contract OCM through contaminated food. Multitaskers love the lunchbreak because it gives them the chance to engage in not only several business activities at once but several bodily functions as well. It’s a chance to sip while sending an SMS, eat while composing an email and digest while dialling the local sushi bar for more food. Between noon and 1pm, multitaskers scurry about the office, devouring salmon rolls and bragging about the mind-boggling array of leisure activities they plan to pack into the weekend. At some point, a multitasker will offer you one of his Japanese snacks. Don’t take it. You’ll get in the habit of working while eating, and your desk will be forever covered in the crusty stubs of sushi rolls. The multitasker’s meal, like his work, is always left half-finished.

Without treatment, OCM matures into two more advanced stages of the disorder. The first is Split-Attention Syndrome, where the multitasker spends so much time staring at two separate screens he becomes cross-eyed.

The second is Multitasking Hypermania, where the multitasker becomes so addicted to the illusion of increased productivity he’s physically incapable of doing one thing at a time.

A multitasker in this final stage of OCM is easy to spot. You can see him at his desk, his arms a blur as he types, texts and tweets at the same time. From a distance it looks like he has a hundred hands holding a hundred different gadgets. He’s a yuppie Hindu deity, the Supreme Being of Simultaneity. Sadly, this person is so far gone medical science cannot help. The only hope is that one of his digital devices malfunctions and gives him an ECT treatment.

This article is available for re-publication. Email greg.foyster@gmail.com for details.