Column: Productivity - Multitasking Mayhem

  • by May 25, 2005

Everybody feels like they have little free time, so everyone is searching for more. Time has become the most precious resource of all, trumping money and material things as the epitome of success. The people who have made it, are people with no time to waste.

The results of a Yankelovich Monitor survey show that the large percentage of people who say they never have enough time keeps inching up. In 2001, 73 percent agreed that they don't have enough time to do all that they need to do. In 2002, it was 75 percent; in 2003, 76 percent; in 2004, 77 percent. Year to year, these shifts are unremarkable, but over several years, the trend is clear - more people are worried about too little time.

James Robinson, the former director of the 40-year long Americans' Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, reported that in the 1998 survey, for the first time ever, more people said they were pressed for time rather than for money.

The riches of the marketplace - especially media - have intensified people's feelings that time is short. With so many media and leisure options available, the time people have gets overrun with the pressure of trying to do everything.

This is the psychological phenomenon found in a 2002 analysis of British Health and Lifestyle Survey data collected between 1985 and 1992. University of Manchester Economic Researchers Dale Southerton and Mark Tomlinson found that the people most likely to feel harried and pressed for time were those whom they characterized as "omnivorous," meaning people with the widest appetites for lots of cultural activities. These omnivores do more in total, but because they do so much, they have no time for much involvement, frequency, depth, or engagement with any one activity.

The paradox is that the best thing about contemporary media is also the worst thing. Media today offers more than ever - more choices, better quality, easier access, and greater specificity. Yet, this surfeit of abundance and availability often detracts from the everyday experience of life, which in turn gives rise to behaviors that make it harder for media to deliver effective marketing and advertising.

Multitasking is now the most common time management strategy. In Monitor, 74 percent of respondents report that they are always doing more than one thing at a time. Multi-tasking isn't just about the simultaneous use of different media; it's even built into the format and functionality of an individual medium.

One recent trend is to present content with a multitasking look of simultaneity and interconnectedness. For example, many TV shows have become a jumble of informational sidebars, promotional crawls, network logos, and Web site addresses. Web sites teem with flashing animation, highlighted text, pop-up windows, and ads of every configuration.

Multitasking is widely regarded as an essential life skill for the 21st century, yet it's not necessarily a good thing for marketing, no matter how much media tries to accommodate.

Research conducted in the early 1990s at the University of Michigan found that the cumulative time it takes to complete a task is longer when doing so while switching back and forth between tasks. Information processing is diminished by the time and attention lost during multitasking. Brain-imaging studies conducted by Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University have found that less of the brain is activated for a given task when another task is being performed at the same time. In short, multitasking diminishes the power and impact of information.

Contemporary time pressures are pushing people in two directions, not just one. Time-starved consumers don't want to spend any time with anything that isn't worth the time it takes. But for things that are worth it, people are willing to slow down.

The first priority of media must be to add value, not to subtract parts. When media are worth it, people will pay attention. And only then does marketing deliver.

J. Walker Smith is president of Yankelovich Partners and the co-author of "Coming to Concurrence: Addressable Attitudes and the New Model for Marketing Productivity." (

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