re-post: there’s no such thing as multi-tasking

because you never saw it before, and i like it—

There is no end to what we will say to allow ourselves to feel better about things that we should not feel better about.  Large men will rub their beer bellies and claim that women find it “sexy.”  Sometimes they will say they’re not heavy, they’re “big boned,” which isn’t possible.  Overweight women will convince others that they’re happier that way, but I suspect they’re not.  Those beer-bellied men also say that the belly gives them “character.”  Yes, if that character is “Wimpy” from the old Popeye cartoons.  I won’t pick on bald men because nobody chooses to be bald.  You can choose to gain weight, but you can’t choose to gain hair.  Well, not naturally.  We’ve also become blissfully ignorant, sometimes pretending to enjoy being unaware of things in order to avoid any responsibility.  However, one claim that particularly bothers me is what we are doing for which we have adopted the term “multi-tasking.”

We are bored, and we have been bored a long time.  It starts in daycare when they packed us in a room full of toys with a big television in the corner with Barney and Sesame Street playing all day.  It got worse in elementary school when inflation forced both parents to work, leaving us home alone for a few hours after school.  If you didn’t have both parents, then you were already alone and bored.  It got worse in high school when more teachers learned that it was easier to give us pages to read and questions to answer instead of engaging us in conversation.  As video games grew in capability, graphics, and popularity, we ourselves became boring because we choose more often to sit home and play instead of playing after school sports.  Real sports are a little tougher to play because they do not have a “reset” button.  Once we reached the workplace, we sealed the boredom deal when they stuffed us in cubicles, which functioned much like blinders on a horse.

When we are given a task at work, it doesn’t take long for us to become disinterested, looking for something else.  It seems we’re always searching for that “reset” button.  Because of our general inability to commit to anything, many of us do not even last a full year at one job before moving on to another one.  Those who do last might only do so because we could not find something or somewhere else to which to jump, thanks to record unemployment.  Sometimes we do not last long at a job not by choice but by management’s choice to get rid of the slackers.  Some of us, however, have figured out how to make it appear that we are actually working when in reality we are not.  This is what we now call “multi-tasking” (MT), and it goes something like this:

You’re given task B, which might normally take you five total hours to complete.  During the first hour you stop to check e-mail, send a few “tweets,” and post the first line of your favorite song on Facebook after you leave some comments on your sister’s Disney vacation photos, something about getting sick on Tower of Terror.  Later in that first hour, you remember that you still haven’t finished task A that you were given the day before.  So B goes on hold while you take a few minutes to remind yourself on what task A was all about.  You find notes, double check a few numbers, and slowly get up to speed.  You then put in a solid fifteen minutes before you stand up to stretch, lose your train of thought, and drift back to task B again.

Your first 60 minutes of task B turns out to be only about 30 productive minutes.  In the next hour of task A or B, those 30 productive minutes will decrease further because you’re going to touch base with a co-worker and coffee.  What will seem like collaboration is really only procrastination, and it will get worse after lunch when task C comes across your desk.

Each transition from task to task requires about two minutes to check e-mail, refill coffee, or say “hi” to someone else.  It also requires two minutes to refamiliarize yourself with one of the other tasks in order to slowly catch up to the point you were out when you bailed the last time.  When your boss asks why tasks A and B aren’t finished yet, you tell him they’re both in progress but not yet complete because you’re “multi-tasking.”  Feel better?  Of course, because you’re not multi-tasking.  You’re just jumping back and forth between three different things while giving less attention and taking more time to do so.

Before I even started writing this, I had already heard from two people who insist that they multi-task regularly with examples such as driving a stick shift, smoking, and talking on the phone.  That is not multi-tasking.  That is doing two mechanical motions while speaking.  Multi-tasking requires pensive focus activities such as reading or writing.  It’s not multi-tasking if I’m riding a bike, breathing, and blinking.

If there was such a thing as multi-tasking, women would definitely be better at it than men.  Actually, I’m sure they all believe they can do it because I’ve seen women talk on the phone, watch television, and bake lasagna at the same time.  In females, there are two connections, two pathways that connect the right and left hemispheres of their brains.  Men only have one connection, leaving us only half as good at efficiently moving information back and forth as we do things.  So while women would easily talk to their mothers, watch General Hospital, and bake lasagna, men would probably end up in General Hospital after eating chemicals from the battery of the cell phone that we accidentally dropped in the lasagna.

67 thoughts on “re-post: there’s no such thing as multi-tasking

  1. Driving and carrying on a conservation does indeed require “pensive focus” and unfortunately the act of multi-tasking by talking on one’s cell phone while operating a motor vehicle compromises both. Resulting in the disconnection of common sense from one’s actions seen so often in women attempting to drive and talk at the same time as they blow through yield and stop signs.

    • i don’t see a conversation as pensive focus. but maybe i’m wrong. as for the part about women, i’m staying out of that one!

      • Defensive driving takes such an intensive focus to make it safely from point a to point b that talking on a cell phone is indeed enough to distract a driver. I know I drive 30 miles one way to work for the most part down interstate 20 in Georgia from hwy 113 in temple to lee rd in lithia springs. Several times a week a woman talking on her cell phone will blow through the yield sign as I’m turning off lee rd onto the ramp leading onto interstate 20. They don’t even bother to look whereas most men who blow through the yield sign do so purposely after seeing me coming instead of yielding.

        Not too long ago as I was driving to work in the middle lane on a rainy morning a car that was slightly ahead of me in the fast lane spun out of control, crossed right in front of me as it spun round and round, crossed the slow lane and came to a stop on the grassy bank just before I reached liberty road.

        As it was everything happened so fast that all I had time to do was barely take my foot off the gas petal and begin to slow down as the car passed in front of me narrowly missing my own car. Imagine now the consequences had I been trying to multi-task by taking my cell phone out of my pocket, looking at my phone to make a call instead of the road. Or staring blankly in front of me without really seeing what was taking place around me while carrying on a conversation.

      • By “conversation ” I mean talking to a person next to you. Cell phones are different because they take one hand off the wheel and block your vision too. Plus looking at them occasionally instead of the road . I once missed a stop sign while texting. Won’t try that again.

  2. Haha great post. I am someone who works in a super boring office. Innnn a cubicle and on certain days where I’m feeling super lazy, you are right on the money when it comes to the action and the usage of the word “Multi- tasking. :D…

  3. Are you looking over my shoulder? I swear I literally have to take my laptop where I can’t get internet in order to get anything done sometimes!

  4. If I’m talking on the phone, watching tv, baking lasgne AND thinking about doing something really, really productive at the same time, can I please get away with calling that multi-tasking?

    • nah, because you’re not giving any of them your full attention. they’re all getting diluted attention and each will suffer in quality, or it’ll take just as long as if you did each individually. sorry.

  5. God, that last bit is hysterical. Fortunately I had already swallowed my water when I got to it.

    Studies show less than 1 percent of people can truly multitask. The rest of us are fooling ourselves. Even though we’ve all probably bragged about how good we are at it. Sort of like being legends in our own minds….

  6. I work five 10 hour days locked in the same room for most of the time. I have to admit some of my days are just as you mention. It is very easy to become unfocused on a task when bored. I agree if there is such a thing as multitasking then women are better at it in general.I can totally see the batteries ending up in the lasagna,but I don’t think that is just a man thing.I am forever having cooking mishaps because I am doing ten things at once!

  7. People do treat kids very house and in school. in my time school would mean hours of mugging up chapters,the teacher would somehow explain something and ask and as soon as one answered it was taken everybody has got it…..
    tons of homework and a teachers job is done
    we had tough time in school
    and then parents are so busy they keep buying things to get rid of the guilt of not spending enough time with their kids which is as harmful as neglecting your kid
    you are so right about the reset button,just one click and the problem is solved and may be thats the reason every one is so hooked on to these things instead of paying attention to real relationships

    Just love the way you write about such serious topics with such a lovely balance of humour

    • i never thought about that in school. if one kid answers correctly, the teacher assumes the whole class got it too. that’s a great point. thanks for reading.

  8. It goes back to the cave man days as men were focusing on hunting the big kill and the women were caring for the young and gathering near the home. Well done .. but I’ve never dropped lasagna … well, not yet.

  9. omg! overweight peeps who rub their bellies to multitasking mamas making lasagna…who’s all over the place? to prove a point?… totally take you to task about classifying women as talking to our mothers and baking lasagna…
    I’m usually answering email, adding my thoughts to a review, and yes working on my writing project, oftentimes have my laptop, desktop and iPad open at the same time – shut the front door: multi-tasking!
    but I see your tongue is in your cheek 🙂

  10. this is so honest and so fabulously true. What a lazy bunch of motherfuckers we are. Life is handed to most of us in America and we simply complain that it is tough or that we are not accomplished. The fact is that most of us just do not work very hard and I am one of them that does not. Man of leisure is just as taxing on the body as a man of labor yet I just can never seem to labor so much as I leisure. Ben Franklin was a man of exceptionally large and varied talents. I like to think of myself much more of a man of exceptionally minor and infrequent talents that I pawn off as great existential introspection. I am not sure where this goes from here, but this remains one of my favorite posts you have written.
    Cheers to you and I wish I had those female pathways for information absorption!

  11. Spot on Rich! You had me wincing during the first half and laughing out loud all the way through the second!

    Back when I was a great deal younger I worked as a temp. secretary for a couple of years. I learned a great many things from all those different companies but the most astounding lesson came from the largest one I ever worked for.

    I waltzed in on the first day, sat down and emptied the in-basket in about 2 hours. Then I spent the rest of the day bored out of my brain and terrified I’d be sent home. This continued until I ‘learned’ how to pace my output to match that of my boss who, obviously, was mutli-tasking the whole time :/

  12. I like this. Actually, I am female and rubbish at multi tasking. There – how’s that for a confession? Actually, I stopped trying to do it because I end up spilling drinks on myself. I do agree, also that in a lot of cases, it is procrastination and moving from one thing to another.

  13. Pingback: Blogging is an Awarding Experience! | merlinspielen

    • I had to link to this post from mine. I get a little ranty when I hear people tell me how wonderfully they multi-task. We are not computers with multi-processors. Nope we are humans with one processor made out of wetware. Still pretty amazing in what it can do – but multi-tasking not so much!

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