This is a speech I gave last night for my Toastmasters club

I only had my first girlfriend when I got to university, after high school. So I was a bit of slow starter back then. Every weekend I would rely on my best friend and neighbour to give me a lift to and from her because she lived in another city and his girlfriend lived there as well. So it almost became like a ritual that after he picked me up we would stop off at a garage shop and buy snacks and cool drinks. So while driving at 120 km/hour he held his cigarette in his right hand, conveniently close to the window for fresh air, controlled the steering wheel with the same hand. In between his legs he would keep his can of Coke and take the occasion sip. With his left hand he would change gears and every now and then grab some Niknaks or Simba chips. Now in retrospect this was in fact a very dangerous and stupid thing for him to do. This is taking multitasking to the the extreme.

Thank God cellphones were not widely in use back then.

The word multitasking comes from the computer industry and is now considered a vital part of our everyday lexicon. The idea is simple – you do multiple things at the same time. For example you may iron while watching tv or drive you car while listing to a news broadcast on radio. It turns out that of multitasking does not increase our productivity. In 2001 CNN reported a study by researchers Rubinstein and Meyer that found “time costs” increased with the complexity of the chores: It took longer, say, for subjects to switch between more complicated tasks. Every time you switch tasks you loose between 20% and 40% of the potential efficiency. An example quoted was when you write a report and your phone rings – you experience temporary writer’s block when you have switch back into the mode of writing the report.

The science author James Gleick wrote a whole book about the acceleration of just about everything called Faster. However, the most vivid description of this problem we’re facing comes from Professor Barry Schwartz, author of the Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. The basic premise in his book is this: In the affluent Western world we have a greater selection, and a greater amount of choice than ever before in the history of mankind. The ability to choose is directly linked with concepts like freedom of speech and democracy. Nevertheless, we are more dissatisfied with our choices than ever before. So in economic terms we are experiencing a substantial increase in what’s called opportunity costs. And often we find ourselves paralysed when having to make choices. One examples from his book is where a study was performed in selling jam to customers. While presented with 30 flavours of jam at a gourmet store it attracted more interested parties who wants to sample the jam. When presented with only 6 flavours of jam, it attracted less people but increased sales. So there is a paradox is offering to much choice.

Rich Shefren, an online business coach, in his free ebook, the Attention Age Doctrine highlights the facts that we have now entered and era where Attention has become the most valuable resource. So how do you begin to reclaim your attention? Switch off your television, radio, computer and cellphone and give yourself a mental break. One final thought on this subject. In 2005, Glenn Wilson, Psychologist at King’s College in London, gave a group an IQ test who were to do nothing but take the test. He then gave them the same test while being distracted by emails and phone calls. Even though they were told to ignore these interruptions, the volunteers average IQ dropped by 10 points while being distracted. This is more than twice the effect of marijuana in a similar study.