Hardly any human being is capable of pursuing two professions or two arts rightly. – Plato
Plato probably intended his comments regarding multitasking to be instructive to his followers. We can assume that the point of this lesson was to correct what he saw as an error in thinking on their part. We haven’t learned very much in 2,400 years. Modern society has not only ignored this lesson, it has generally embraced the concept of multitasking. It is virtually unmeasurable, but companies still demand inclusion of the multitasking dimension in job descriptions and reward employees who appear actually to perform it. Overburdening people with stressful standards helps to create a culture of “Too Muchism.” In an entirely ironic twist, our lawmakers have decided to levy fines for driving while talking on a cell phone. Suddenly it is no longer legally a virtue to multitask. Studies do show that the real distraction is not the act of using a phone, but using a piece of the brain to formulate conversation, which removes focus from driving. Our brains just aren’t wired to multitask. Using a legal hands-free cellular device, talking to another passenger, or yelling at kids in the back seat can be even more dangerous. Fortunately, having two back-seat-kids is not illegal simply because the wiring of parental brains defy multitasking.
- Human multitasking at the micro-level is a myth. Students who multitask have more academic problems than those who don’t. Assumptions that younger generations of workers can multitask better than older generations may appear to be true. However, it is usually because their brains have been required to accommodate distractions at an earlier age. Even the studies which support this theory conclude that while the mind may become more adept at processing input, it cannot physically multitask and that training the human brain to be more accommodating is not age-specific. Some scientists theorize that women are more capable than men at multitasking, but there has been no conclusive evidence published to support this.
- Considering this concept at a more macro level, humans attempt to give their total allegiance and devotion to multiple worthy targets at the same time. Society places pressure on parents to provide for the care of their children in a reinforcement of an assumed parental stereotype that everyone should instinctively have the same feelings about children. At the same time, employers continue to demand concerted effort on the job mostly without regard for external distractions. Compassionate humans in the workplace will often understand personal situations and make accommodation for the sake of balance. Institutionally, there is another unmeasurable dimension called loyalty: a quality encouraged and rewarded even though balancing is not. The result is that there is a great deal of energy expended in chasing the elusive concept of work-life balance.
One step in the right direction is when companies create a climate of awareness of this concept through training and policy setting. Job seekers research prospective employers to uncover how their lifestyle will match with the corporate culture. Boiling this work-life balance concept down to its essential elements again puts it in the hands or brains of humans who are not very good at figuring it out. It turns out that the key is a mutual understanding of the values of all of the human brains involved. Employees need to realize that the company is not there solely for their benefit, that work-life balance is not profitable, and that their conscious efforts to make the company succeed will benefit them in the long run. On the other hand, employers need to realize that performance suffers when people are not able to cope, that responsibility for the tools of productivity is in the hands of management and that a lack of concern for employees adversely impacts the bottom line.
The conclusion must be that the search for work-life balance begins with each person, but it is up to their managers to guard against Too Muchism. A study from SHRM a few years ago showed that checking work email 24/7 Is the new normal. It is questionable just how much of this is required and how much is obsessive behavior on the part of individuals trapped in this syndrome. How many humans in management are requiring significant presentations, audits, or project delivery immediately after a holiday weekend? How many human-brained employees will voluntarily go to the beach with a laptop or cell phone to check email or keep up on calls while on vacation? Why look outside of ourselves for balance when we are not even trying to find it? Balance begins with taking care of our bodies, our minds, and the spiritual things which matter to us. Nobody can control that but the one we see in the mirror.