To do two things at once is to do neither.
Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.
The problem is there is always one more thing to do, one more task to add to the endless list of tasks to be completed in any one given life span. Are we really meant to do so much in a progressively smaller and smaller window of time?
This week I read an intriguing article in The New Atlantis by Christine Rosen entitled “The Myth of Multitasking.” It was written a few years ago, but I can’t help feeling that the urgency of its message is more profound today than ever before. I know myself that I have proudly boasted my multitasking prowess at every job interview for the last couple of decades and I seriously thought I was accomplishing more than one thing at a time as I answered phone calls, typed email messages and passed off pantomime instructions to nearby co-workers.
Truth be told, there’s no such thing as multitasking. Really. It’s physically and psychologically impossible. Attempts at multitasking carry with them their own litany of risks. Driving while using a cell phone is one. Mounting stress to do more and more is another. The constant shifting from one activity to another has fostered a new condition called “attention deficit trait”. One writer believes multitasking is leading us into an attention deficit recession and in a 2005 research study funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, it was found that “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”
When I first drafted this article I included 10 steps to aid in unplugging ourselves from the Machiavellian multitasking machine. For better or worse its turns out I’m not a 10 steps kind of woman. I just don’t think life’s answers are that easy. I don’t have a checklist of the perfect mate or the ideal job or what will make me happy. I suppose that goes back to my Buddhist leanings, realizing that there will always be something else beyond the list to be craved, to be yearned for, something in the future that is pushing its way into the present.
With that in mind and shifting our view of multitasking as a myriad of future tasks vying for our present attention, try to treat them as a buffet of choices. If there are too many things screaming for your immediate attention then stop, take a few breaths and sort them by time-lines and priorities. If 12 things must be completed today, which of those tasks need to be done before lunch, before 10am, and so on. Can something be delegated to someone else or wait until tomorrow? Is there a way to combine the tasks or even eliminate a few? Some things, after all, don’t really even need to be done. Many are leftover from the “we’ve always done it that way”closet and they just don’t fit anymore. Wish them well and send them to the appropriate refuse container.
More than anything, be gentle on yourself. Make space in your day for a good heartfelt chat with a friend, a replenishing walk in nature or time spent in reflection and meditation. And never forget the power of a long, relaxing bath. It will set multitasking on its ear, and that’s not such a bad thing.
Additional Reading & References:
The Myth of Multitasking by Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis, Spring 2008.
The Autumn of the Multitaskers by Walter Kirn, The Atlantic, November 2007.
Study funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London – source BBC News, April 22, 2005.
Definition of “human multitasking from Wikipedia.
Hands of Worker by Victor Bezrukov