Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, April 1, 2010

57 Channels and Nothin' On, to quote the Boss

Multitasking.  Why did anyone think this was a good idea?  As if mere tasking weren't bad enough.  

Yesterday, I found myself minding a talkative, energetic two-year-old high on the first warm sunshine in months, while combing the itsy-bitsy remains of my shattered glass patio table-top from their haven in the dead grass and leaves, and taking an ugly work call on my cell phone.  Later, rushing to meet a deadline receding in the rearview mirror, I accompanied my soon-to-leave-home teen on his dog-walking job while discussing the details of the growing-like-Topsy fundraising project I've been left to manage with our printer.  As I write this blog post, I am interrupted by urgent calls and emails, requiring my fractured attention.  These charming vignettes are becoming our societal paradigm.  

Searching for images of "multi-tasking" and "crazy-busy," I unearth Kali-like women using their many arms to rock babies, hold phones, manipulate computers, cook, hold books, write notes by hand, vacuum--and all in the lotus pose.  One ubiquitous picture in this genre is titled "The Modern Woman." 

Women are supposed to be better than men at this newly named "skill."  Some say because we've had to be.  But why would we want to be?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary included the term for the first time back in 1966.  They define it as 
1 : the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer
2 : the performance of multiple tasks at one time
It seems likely that computer usage may be responsible for introducing the concept, and in some cases the goal, and some would say the necessity of multitasking.  The growth of multitasking has probably also have been influenced by the growing number of parents, male and female, who are juggling work and family responsibilities.  

Wikipedia tells us that:

Multitasking may refer to any of the following:
  • Computer multitasking - the apparent simultaneous performance of two or more tasks by a computer's central processing unit.
  • Media multitasking could involve using a computer, mp3, or any other form of media in conjunction with one another.
  • Human multitasking - The ability of a person to perform more than one task at the same time.
I would quibble with the language in their last instance, amending "ability" to read "attempt," or even "hubris that leads one to attempt". . .  But that's just me.  Or is it?

At least some "modern women" and men seem to be, like me, falling out of love with the notion.  Governmental units, including my own municipality, want us to give up talking on our cell phones while driving.  (This is something my family learned about the hard way, when my husband tried to answer a call from me while on a bike, and collided with a small child who suddenly ran into his path.  The child was fine.  My husband wasn't.)  Apparently there are many of us who have not gotten the message that the automaticity of the driving task that allows us to give attention to other things can change in an instant to a situation which requires our full attention; the time spent switching attention modes may have disastrous consequences.  And, astoundingly, many of those unconverted individuals are texting while driving.  

At least some writers and brain scientists are questioning the trend toward time-splitting.  Psychologist John Arden warns us "dummiesthat "multitasking decreases your memory ability.” He asserts that with each new task we assume,  “you dilute your investment in each task.”  In journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, articles such as Faith Brynie's "The Madness of Multitasking" caution that this attempt to do it all might "make [us] stupid," slow us down, and drive us mad.  I have not yet read Dave Crenshaw's The Myth of Multitasking:  How "Doing it All" Gets Nothing Donebut I intend to.  And not while spinning, or watching basketball, or half-listening to my spouse.  I think it will need my undivided attention in order to bear fruit in my thinking, and in my life.

Research conducted at the University of Utah and reported on Tuesday  by the New York Times and others apparently reveals an elite class of supertaskers, whose brains seem capable of managing simultaneous tasks efficiently.  If there is such a class, I suspect that many of us who think we might belong to it in fact do not.  And therein may be at least some of the rub.

But for me, the biggest cost of spending more time than I would like in this straddling mode is not efficiency, effectiveness, or even memory.  It is peace.  The most jarring part of the multitasking woman images I have seen is the meditation pose of the multitasker, super or not.  How can anyone "be here now" when "here" is in at least two places?

For today, I vow to spend the afternoon with my grandson ignoring my cell phone, and whatever other tasks nag to be added in that interval.  And if this resolve doesn't make me smarter, or more effective, or help me to retain the experience, I expect that it will leave me less jangled in the end.

Reading over this post as I prepare to run out the door to deal with yet another  emergency of my volunteer job, sandwiched into an overscheduled day, I am unsatisfied with the disjointed quality of what I've written.  Another casualty of multitasking.

No comments:

Post a Comment