I Suck at Multitasking. Why DO I Keep Doing It?

BlogHer Original Post

I have a nasty cut on my thumb. I have a painful burn on index finger and an ugly abrasion on my middle knuckle. I did all of this damage to my hands while preparing Christmas dinner. The cut happened when I was chopping onions while reading a recipe. The burn occurred while I was removing a pan from the oven while simultaneously turning off the timer. And I got the abrasion earlier in the day when I scraped my knuckle on the bottom edge of the kitchen cabinet while putting a box of Christmas dishes down between the cabinet and another box. I was also talking on the cell phone at the time.

I do not multitask well. When all of the scuttlebutt came out about the ineffectiveness of multitasking, I had already discovered that multitasking comes at a heavy price. I pay for it with scarred hands and burned-out pots. But according to a myriad of studies, we all pay at home and at work with greater mistakes and lower productivity; lower concentration and an inability change between tasks well. Even our kids, who claim to learn better with a million things going on at once, are suffering for the distraction, with less effective learning and lower achievement, so the studies say.

With all of this inefficiency going on, why do we feel that we are getting so much more done? Why do we insist on multitasking anyway? For one thing, our digital devices make us feel like multitasking aficionados. Our phones are little wonders that we can no longer do without. We can run the world with just our fancy phones, we feel. And one computer is no longer enough. Both Fiddledeedee and I have already admitted to using multiple laptops and desk tops at the same time. Who hasn't been following their GPS in the car while on the cell phone giving a friend (who has no navigation system) directions at the same time? Kristy of She Walks Around With It  has a humorous take on multitasking at her computer. She explains why she is posting on her blog in the nude:

So I started getting ready to shower, but checked email first. And halfway through the emails, I realized I was hungry, so I went and got a popsicle. And then on my way back to the computer remembered I was supposed to be showering, so I started disrobing.

We call this multitasking.

After a few minutes I realized I was frantically emailing with one hand and eating a popsicle with another and had managed to get all my clothes off, which meant, right.

I am crazy, yes, but! Consider:

*Answered email in a timely fashion.
*Ingested refreshing, low-caloric snack.
*Remembered to take clothes off before getting in shower.

Crazy...but also effective.

The truth is, notwithstanding the research, our brains are designed to multitask and to adapt. We are doing it all of the time. Consider all of the things we are called to do when we are driving. Even without all of the distractions that we add, driving requires us to accomplish several tasks simultaneously. So does changing a baby's diaper and cooking a meal. Nick Bolton, Design Intergration Editor and user Interface Specialist at the New York Times, points out that our affinity to multitasking has increased with technology and the exponential broadening of available information. He discusses how this has come about:

And then along came the radio. We put our books down, put our newspapers down, and would sit in the living room.” And radio became successful, and we start to see the first signs of multitasking; we don’t have enough time in the day to listen to shows and to read books and newspapers, so we do them at the same time. Same thing happens with television — and then the radio moves into the car, and we’re multitasking even there. Now we’re liable to be on our laptops, writing email, texting, tweeting, watching tv, and playing Nintento at the same time! (Rachel Barenblat, Popdeck.org)

All the while, he explains, our brains are adapting to the increase in activity. Researchers know that the brain is changing and learning new ways of functioning as a result of all of the things we call it to do at once. When scientists look at the brain activity of an experienced Internet user, for example, different (and more) areas are engaged than a novice user. But as novices use the Internet more and integrate all of those multitasking functions required to surf and search, their brains catch up.

So it seems that multitasking is not all bad. It's not necessarily something we should endeavor to stop doing. But we should, perhaps, pace ourselves a bit better. We are trying to do too much. We all have begun to sense this truth. The evidence of mulittasking overload is everywhere. Sherra of SherraLife Lesson.com makes this very point with the use of a Close To Home comic strip. The picture shows a grocery store clerk Tasing a shopper who is on her cell phone. The customer in line behind the Tased and confused shopper is elated. The caption reads:

Many communities are allowing the use of Tasers on shoppers who are on cell phones as they check out.

We have all been there, behind that person who is slowing things down, while gabbing socially on the phone. We can keep our multitasking ways. We just have to accept that there are limits. In the car, we can steer while surveying the road while talking to our children while listening to the radio. But we cannot add texting to the mix. In the kitchen, some of us (obviously not me) can cook, while posting a blog. But we probably should not attempt to help our children with their homework at the same time. They just might resent us for it, because we all know the blog post will win out over the meal and the homework! (I'm just sayin'!)

And there are some obvious cautions that bear reminding:

  • Don't try to load the grocery conveyor while giving your child an unpaid for snack while chatting on the cell phone while trying to write a check. The waves of your bad Karma will ripple throughout the store.

  • Don't text while watching TV at the dinner table. How many things are wrong with this besides the unnecessary weight gain from not paying attention to your meal?

  • Don't watch your kids in the pool while posting your blog and talking on the phone. It simply cannot safely be done!

  • Don't make love to your husband while checking your email on your phone. That's just not cool, even though he thinks the squeals are for him and not the new post comment notifications in your inbox!

We can multitask. We must! Our digital tools help us. But they also make us feel like the super-human people that we are not. We just have to know our limits and resolve in the New Year to be more in the moment when those moments count most.

Have you found your multitasking limit, yet? What would be the hardest multitasking bad habit of yours to break?

Talk about it in the Family Connections Group now.

Think Act: Proactive Black Parenting


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