The Multi-Tasking Executive

Manila Bulletin, June 11, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Multi-Tasking Executive


Byline: Bernardo M Villegas

IN the recent national convention of the Philippine Heart Association, cardiologists were of one mind that preventive care should be given the highest priority in combatting the number one killer today, which is heart disease. Central to preventive care is a healthy lifestyle which includes a balanced and temperate diet and regular physical exercise. For the busy business executive or professional, another ingredient in preventive care is the avoidance of stress that could result from hyperactivity and multi-tasking.

Because of the ICT revolution, a serious threat to the mental and physical health of many executives is what has been termed OCD-online compulsive disorder. Picture the following scene described by Matt Richtel in the International Herald Tribune last July 7, 2003:

"Charles Lax, a 44-year-old venture capitalist, is sitting in a conference for telecommunications executives at a hotel near Los Angeles, but he is not all here. In one ear, he listens to a live presentation about cable-television technology; simultaneously, he surfs the Net on a laptop with a wireless connection, while occasionally checking his mobile device part phone, part pager, and part Internet gadget for e-mail.

"Lax flew from Boston and paid $2,000 to attend the conference, called Vortex. But he cannot unwire himself long enough to give the presenters his complete focus. If he did, he would face a fate worse than lack of productivity: He would become bored.

"Its hard to concentrate on one thing, he said, adding: I think I have a condition.

"The ubiquity of technology in the lives of business people and consumers has created a subculture of the Always On and a brewing tension between productivity and freneticism. For all the efficiency gains that it seemingly provides, the constant stream of data can interrupt not just dinner and family activities, but also meetings and creative time, and it can prove very tough to turn off."

I have witnessed "multi-tasking executives" in numerous seminars, workshops, and conferences in which I have given lectures or economic briefings. The Always On subculture has become pervasive in corporate and professional life among middle- and high-income Filipinos. The danger to limb and life is obvious when one is driving a car while trying to perform other tasks. That is why it can even be a criminal act to use ones cell phone when one is driving. The danger to ones mental health posed by multi-tasking is more subtle, however. It can be counterproductive and even addicting, according to two Harvard professors who described a condition called "psuedo-attention deficit disorder (ADD)." Edward Hallowell and John Ratey say that although the sufferers do not have actual ADD, they tend to develop shorter attention spans. They become frustrated with long-term projects, thrive on the stress of constant fixes of information, and physically crave the bursts of stimulation from constantly checking text messages, e-mails, voicemail, or answering the phone, fixed or wireless."

The ADD danger should be taken even more seriously in the light of recent discoveries by US doctors and pharmaceutical companies that Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) a condition long associated with unruly children, can inflict a significant number of adults.

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