The rise of the madhatter

It’s a visual cliché: who among us hasn’t seen a photo-shopped image of the fresh-faced professional with six additional arms, each handling a different task? In a little over a decade, multi-tasking has become a byword for efficiency. Once again, digital technology is the force that’s brought this phenomenon into being.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the internet – and everything it’s spawned – has transformed every facet of our lives. Above all, it’s eroded the boundaries between our private and public lives. A good internet connection means that the office is as close as your sofa. From there, you can work and – let’s be honest socialise – thanks to Facebook and other platforms like it. Step out of the house and you’re smart-phone means you’re still connected to work even as you head over to the gym, and platforms like LinkedIn mean you get to do a spot of professional networking as you go.

There’s no doubt about it. These days we all wear many hats, and we wear them simultaneously.

Digital technology enables the convergence of our professional selves and our private selves, and there’s much to be said for this.

We enjoy being seen as ‘whole people,’ not just bodies tied to a job description. Savvy employers know this. Not only are they enabling employees to ‘take the office home’ with them, they’re starting to ‘bring the home into the office.’ Trends in workplace design are reflecting this. Increasingly, employers are acknowledging the many hats we wear by incorporating crèches, prayer rooms and gyms inside the offices they commission.

Ironically, just as employers are trying to enhance our ability to wear all our hats simultaneously, a counter-trend to this is emerging. Winifred Gallagher is the author of Rapt, a book that documents her growing dissatisfaction with a life filled with multiple and competing responsibilities. As her book reveals, she’d been unhappy about the number of roles she had to fulfill simultaneously for a long period. In the midst of this she was diagnosed with cancer. Once she emerged from her illness she was determined to live a fuller life. The key to this? Well, Gallagher found that a fuller life is an emptier one.

On the face of it, this seems paradoxical. But Gallagher makes a convincing case that our quality of life is seriously compromised by our collective commitment to doing as much as we can, as fast as we can, at once. She paints a picture of the average Westerner’s life that most of us will recognise. Visualise a father dropping his child off to school. He feels guilty that he’s not already in the office, so he’s not actually talking to his child at the school gates. Instead, he’s plugged into work via his smart phone. But work only has half his attention too, and the colleague who just received an irrelevant message from him knows it. Everyone in this scenario is unsatisfied. As Gallagher argues, our lives are not more complete because we try to fulfill many roles at once, they’re more fragmented.

Gallagher is far from alone in reaching this conclusion. The Australia Institute recently issued a paper titled ‘Polluted Time: Blurring the Boundaries Between Work and Life.’ Essentially, it argues that the blurring of boundaries between our private and professional selves results in ‘polluted time,’ that’s time when work pressures prevent people from enjoying – or even using – their non-work time. Not surprisingly, the report also notes that this kind of ‘pollution’ is stressful. And as we all know, stress doesn’t just feel bad, it is bad for our health. Some now suggest that over 70% of illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, frequent coughs and colds, peptic ulcers, insomnia, allergies, asthma, menstrual difficulties, tension headaches, stomach upsets, and cancer are associated with stress.

If all this is true, it begs the question of why we persist with wearing so many hats simultaneously. For starters, it’s hard to simply opt out of a now-established workplace culture. We feel duty-bound to scroll through our emails as we take a phone call, or to text a colleague while we’re talking to our kids about their homework. We feel we must work in this fashion in order to fit all of our competing responsibilities into a single day. But is this way of operating as productive as we think it is? Gallagher turns to science to settle this question, and the findings there are compelling.

According to a growing body of scientific research, multi-tasking is, quite literally, a waste of our time. In a presentation at a forum convened by The Economist, researcher Nicholas Carr points out that our short-term working memory can only accommodate between two and four pieces of information at once. When we try to do two or more things at once, we actually impede our brain’s ability to absorb information. As Carr also notes, we do our best thinking when we’re screening information out, not in. Meanwhile, research by Glenn Wilson, a professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, showed that peoples’ problem-solving performance drops by the equivalent of 10 IQ points when their attention is divided. What difference does a loss of 10 IQ points make, you ask? Well, apparently that’s the deficit you suffer after a particularly bad night’s sleep. Other research has compared the effectiveness of your average worker – who routinely writes emails while speaking on the phone – with someone who’s just smoked a spot of marijuana. Seriously.

While some of us might be amused to find that we could (arguably) advise our boss that we’re as justified in smoking a joint at our desk as we are in having Facebook on, we all know how unsatisfactory it is to be on the receiving end of an over-stretched colleague. At best, it’s irritating when we only have half of our colleague’s attention. At worst, it’s dangerous. This is particularly clear in a sector like construction. Here, the risks that come with distraction are serious, especially when you consider that the inefficiency that comes with a multi-tasking project manager invariably has a cascade effect. Too busy with too many other tasks, the time-and-attention poor project manager is unlikely to be giving his construction team the advice they need. They in turn become unproductive, stressed and distracted, and a site like this is simply not as safe as it should be.

There are, apparently, simple things we can do regain a sense of control over our too-full lives. At it’s simplest, we can, as author Dave Crenshaw suggests, ‘de-clutter’ our lives by turning off our phones; turning off our monitors when we’re on the phone and turning off our social and professional networking sites. But in the end, this is small-picture stuff. And as long-time social researcher Barbara Pocock indicates, the big picture remains complicated. Pocock has just released a book called Time Bomb: Work, Rest and Play in Australia Today. As it’s title makes clear,

the pressure to maximise our productivity and enhance our professional skills while also raising our children, caring for our aged, and being involved in our community is starting to overwhelm us. Something, she argues, will have to give,

and in all likelihood it will have to be in the workplace. According to Pocock, the boss who gets hot under the collar if you fail to text her while you’re chairing a meeting will – eventually – be forced to face the fact that staff who wear too many hats may end up maddened by them. And if the health of their staff isn’t a priority for an employer, well, the bottom line usually is.

As the science now shows, the over-stretched worker could be so much more effective if they were only free to stop trying to be all things to all people, all the time.

To find out more about how you can leverage trends to help your business or project, contact the Thinc Beyond team at