Too much noise, too many distractions

MULTI-TASKING It’s a myth – it’s just not possible to do many things at once.
MULTI-TASKING It’s a myth – it’s just not possible to do many things at once.

I'm calling bulls... on the myth of multi-tasking. For ages now we've been told that women can multi-task and men can't, written on our CVs that we're "effective multi-taskers", and felt aggrieved when we weren't able to complete several tasks at once.

Science, our faithful friend, has proven us wrong on all counts, and thank goodness for that. Arise, single-tasking, and take your rightful place in the office.

One of the Harvard Business Review's Breakthrough Ideas for 2007 was Linda Stone's concept of "continuous partial attention". With the internet, we're constantly looking for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities, making sure we miss nothing.

It's impossible to multi-task. Research has shown your brain can only process one activity at a time. When you're "multi-tasking", all you're doing is switching very quickly from one task to another, which contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, and we all know how good those are for us.

Distraction is a powerful force. If we want to get things done, multi-tasking is not the way to do it. It's incredibly damaging to the type of real, deep work that can change the world.

One study by University of California researchers monitored interruptions among office workers and found that they took an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task after interruptions such as phone calls or answering email.

My suspicion that multi-tasking was a lie began when I became a reporter. For all the fun of the newsroom buzz, it's difficult to imagine a harder place to concentrate, though I'm sure school teachers and emergency department doctors are able to prove me wrong.

At its most vibrant, a newsroom is a boil-up of shrieks, laughter, guffaws, aggression, joy, panic, sadness, outrage - and that's all before deadline.

When I started in a newsroom, the difficulty of mentally processing conversation, background noise, phone calls, writing, emails, and text messages all at once made me wonder how everyone else in the world coped with the constant distraction in an open-plan office, because I found it incredibly difficult. Are we all struggling, or is it just me?

The Wall Street Journal reported the results of the latest CareerCast survey this week, which ranks occupations according to 11 different stress factors including physical demands, deadlines, competitiveness, and the amount of travel the job requires.

It always makes the news because reporters take perverse delight in seeing themselves in the top-10 worst list along with airline pilots, fire-fighters, police officers, taxi drivers, and soldiers, which reaffirms that they're doing a very important yet totally unappreciated job and if everyone else would only wake up and realise this then they might get a pay rise.

Don't get me wrong; we do it to ourselves. It's a great job, and I'm not complaining. I'm sure it's no coincidence, however, that the jobs involving working alone or with one other person on focus-intensive projects are ranked the least stressful: jewellery designers, dieticians, librarians, hairdressers, audiologists, and university professors.

Anyway, I've spent the past five years engaged in creative engineering to try and improve my powers of concentration. Different screen and text colours. Pot plant and book barriers between desks.

Lyricless music with a good beat on noise-cancelling headphones. Super-early starts.

Turning the email off, avoiding the internet, shutting down chat functions, ignoring my colleagues' distress calls and jokes, using the phone instead of email.

Turning the phone to answer machine was good, but had to go. What if someone was trying to get through with news that a house was burning down - or more likely in Nelson, that there were orca in the harbour?

Eventually I bashed out a new brain pathway that helped me concentrate in long flowy stretches, but unfortunately it works best late at night, which is not conducive to the 40-hour work week.

I long for a society built on the natural waves of human ebb and flow.

The open plan office emerged with the idea that it might foster creativity and team discussion. I think we should go backward.

The desk jockeys of this world would get more work done to a better standard if they were allowed freedom and peace to come and go, able to retreat to small offices or tall-walled cubicles to work and think, and then emerge again into fresh air for a chat and a break, and, yes, creative discussion. Hopefully at the pub.

But until businesses catch on to this - and while they're at it, they can agree to my other pet campaigns, free creches and nap pods - I'm stuck listening to whale calls on massive dorky headphones in the newsroom.