The Traps of Multitasking

Injury Prevention, a Seattle journal, recently published the results of a study regarding the habits of pedestrians while crossing the street. The study found unsurprisingly that people who text while crossing the street are four times more likely to ignore traffic signals.

While I do confess to the impertinent habit of texting or checking my phone while otherwise engaged, I always tell myself I am not like all those other people texting frivolously, this message actually is important (it isn’t, at least not so much that it can’t wait the five seconds it will take me to make it to the other side safely), and then I make a mental note not to allow myself to do it again. Of course, I always do it again.

Almost as importantly as the findings of this study with “1,000 real-time pedestrians” is the answer to the question: why do we do this? Why do we put ourselves in harm’s way over such an insignificant thing as searching for the next track or sending a confirmation message? The researchers in the study tell us that people think they are able to multitask and be completely aware of their surroundings, which is not necessarily true.

It would seem that our ability to focus on only one thing has steadily decreased with the rise of new technologies that allow us to disconnect at a moment’s notice when the present is not particularly pleasant or interesting. Stuck in a line at the post office, I sigh and immediately grab for my phone, where my favorite music is stored. Standing in a full train with no seats available, I will desperately hold on to dear life with only one hand while refusing to let go of the phone in my hand, where I’m reading a juicy article to make the trip seem shorter.

In part this has to do with keeping ourselves entertained, but I believe that is overly simplistic. What it also has to do with is the pace at which information flies nowadays. While we are out here in the real world crossing streets and standing on trains, data is flying back and forth on the internet at almost the speed of light. The idea that there are things happening elsewhere and we are missing out on them can be anxiety-provoking. And so the need to be connected is not so much anymore about staying in contact with friends. Connection means also being plugged into that world of information, being first in knowing, participating, not being left behind.

The confidence in our ability to multitask is difficult to dispel. The allures of simultaneously working towards checking things off our to-do list is too tempting to put aside for concerns such as quality or even personal safety. And it ultimately may have something to do with the way we work.

While this is true for many professions nowadays, translators and interpreters are particularly prone to the multitasking malady. After all, the ability to switch quickly from one task to the next is a requirement of interpretation, as is our capacity to be aware of our surroundings while doing something else. Interpreters must be able to listen as they talk, but aural cues do not tell the whole story, as we also rely on visual cues, such as body language, Powerpoint presentations, and glossary lists to do our jobs. Translators must often “interrupt” their work to research a term, and this research might turn into spending up to an hour reading an article on a particular topic. As most translators are business managers as well, we must be willing to answer calls and emails whenever they come. Interruptions and distractions are the stuff of our work, and we become so accustomed to them that we lose the ability to turn ourselves off.

In this, the only thing that can save us from getting run over on the street or losing ourselves in a downward spiral of work-caffeine-distractions-more work-more caffeine is an active conscious effort to remind ourselves that we mustn’t get sidetracked, that the email hanging on the inbox can wait and the text message on the phone will not suddenly disappear. It can all wait. Your sanity and your safety are more important than responding quickly.

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