“Multitasking may be cool, but it makes you a fool”

(Flickr/Patrik Nygren)

(Flickr/Patrik Nygren)

I’ve been reminded of this quote a couple of time over the last week or so while watching the FA Cup and Champions League finals. It’s from Paul Dolan’s latest book Happiness by Design.

Dolan explains how we can all make our lives more pleasurable and purposeful by making much more deliberate and planned choices about what parts of our lives we focus on and pay attention to.

The Arsenal and Barcelona players seemed to have no time to pause and savour the ephemeral joy of victory. The final whistle blew, the smartphones were out and they moved seamlessly to the dubious pleasures of taking a lot of really crap selfies. Of course, this behaviour isn’t limited to elite sportsmen. The pervasiveness of digital tech and social media means we are all paying more attention to recording and sharing our lives rather than experiencing them. We focus on the minutiae, not the milestones.

In marketing it is taken as self-evident that tech makes our lives easier and more fulfilling. The transformative power of multi-tasking is at the heart of this story. There is no doubt that tech allows us to do more, communicate more, learn more etc. But behavioural science shows that multi-tasking is myth. It makes us less happy and less productive.

The big problem is that tech distracts us. And, as Dolan emphasised: “Distraction costs.” Each of us has a limited pool of cognitive resources and distraction reduces it quickly. The constant interruption and switching of our digital lives means we risk not having enough attention left for the pleasurable and purposeful stuff that really matters.

If the launch of the Apple Watch is where wearable tech goes mainstream, it’s also the signal for the next stage of the distraction arms race. Dolan’s solution is to use the tech less (he switches his phone off at 7pm every night). But that discipline gets harder if you are actually wearing the tech. And encouraging people to use less stuff is not a very attractive model for those making and marketing it.

But global brands are also getting serious about social leadership (and the behavioural science that supports it). They are competing to help us stay healthy and live meaningful lives. There are already plenty of apps out there that claim to help us ‘do happiness’. But if the science shows that distraction is harmful, this leads to a very heretical idea. Tech shouldn’t help people multi task it should help them do one thing at a time.

Ian Murray, founding partner, House51