Multi-Tasking: A Big, Fat Lie
The new claim is: "I'm so busy I have to do two or three things at a time."
Drive, text, talk on the phone, listen to radio and read the paper while washing the dishes. Yep, we have all done it. Hey, I do think women have evolved into creatures who are accustomed to putting a load of wash in, going to make the bed, go back to put the wash in the dryer, pay the bills, go make lunch, go back to the dryer and unload it.
We are not like men, who (pardon the huge over-generalization that borders on truth) tend to take one task at a time. Putting up a fence? OK, go to Lowe's; get the stuff that's needed, come home, build a fence. Well, that used to be true, but I see one heck of a lot of guys on cell phones while roaming Lowe's or driving, certainly at bars and restaurants. But here is the deal: None of us do very well at multi-tasking.
Recent studies have been delving into this phenomenon. A tweet, a text or an IM is always under way even while they are on the computer working on two or three homework assignments AT A TIME!
Now, if America did not rank 34th or 35th in the world in education I would say that all that multi-tasking was really working well. But studies show that we end up accomplishing tasks in a short time, but doing them poorly. It is no sin to go from one real task to the next real task, but not so it looks like you are really, really busy when you are doing five at a time (read: cool). What is being retained? For that matter, what is being accomplished?
Here is where I own up. Recently I was on a call with my mother, and as I was at my computer I started to do something while she was talking to me. Now, not every conversation with my mom is earth-shattering or brilliant, not on her side, nor my side either. But I realized that she had said something and expected a response, and I did not have a clue as to what it was (she won't be seeing this column, and if you send it to her I will multi-task you to the next world!) and that I had cheated on her. She either deserves my attention, or I should say that I need to call her back because there is something that I must finish (if that is really true).
As I type this out, I am forced to think and consider what it is I am saying and typing. I cannot do much more than this when I write. And it is that experience of writing that has helped me see that doing with a whole heart and concentration one thing at a time holds more satisfaction than many tasks with little heart or focus.
Looking busier but not completing or retaining what one reads, hears or experiences is merely spinning our wheels in a way. I bet golfing, which I do not do, is like that. Sure you chat with your pals - that seems to be at the heart of golf - but you don't tweet, phone or e-mail, do you? You are happy to be doing the one thing. And so you should be.
We have been sold a bill of goods on this one, by phone companies, by computer companies, by employers who want us to be always in touch and always busy (or seeming to be). But when do we recharge, absorb and focus if all we are doing is keeping many things going and often not well?
I think we should take a hard look at the time we give ourselves and each other to consider, absorb. accomplish and refresh. Instant messaging implies that time taken to think is somehow a waste.
Whereas I am beginning to think that the only real waste is that we no longer allow ourselves to do what humans do better than any living creature: think, create and feel. We are not a box of ramen noodles into which you simply pour the boiling water of multi-tasking or speed; we are creatures of time. It starts with the slowest of efforts, the nine months we need to become the merest hint of who we are.
Don't you think we deserve to honor that length of time by giving each day, each single task, a little breathing space?
Joyce Reehling lives in Pinehurst. She recently retired here from New York after a 33-year career in theater, TV and commercials.
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