Multitasking: A young person’s game?

This morning NPR ran a feature about a neuroscientist whose research shows that people reach their peak ability to multitask—defined as doing more than one thing at once—in their twenties, that young children are incapable of multitasking, and that as we age we lose the knack of handling several trains of thought or attention at the same time.

It’s an interesting proposition. One thing is for sure: it goes a long way toward explaining why I feel more and more hostile toward conflicting demands on my attention, and why contemporaries often say the same thing. Two things happen as you age, of which either or both may be related to this issue:

  1. When you put something down to attend to something else, you tend to forget the first task and wander off into new realms.
  2. When you are trying to perform a given task, it begins to look to you as not one task but a whole series of tasks. For example, doing the laundry = a) gathering clothes and toweling, b) hauling laundry to the washer, c) treating stains, d) setting the washer to soak, e) adding soap and bleach, f) going back out to the washer to run the rest of the cycle, g) going back out to put the wet clothes in the dryer or hang them on the line, h) going back out to haul the clothes out of the dryer or off the line, i) hanging and folding clothes, k) putting the clothes away. “One” task is actually eleven tasks!

Each of these eleven tasks interrupts something else that you’re doing: housecleaning, yardwork, blogging, child care, paying work, whatever. Even if the subtasks of a given activity happen all in one chunk of time, rather than spreading out over minutes or hours as the laundry chore does, as you get older you still see X job not as X but as a + b + c + d . . . and so on to infinity.

The point I’m trying to make (I think) is that “multitasking” is not doing several things at once. It’s actually a conflicting tangle of interruptions. It may be, in fact, that at times in your life you’re better equipped to stay focused during a series of interruptions: your attention wanders less, or you’re less conscious of the annoyance factor inflicted by gestalt activities. But I would argue that proceeding forward by interruption is not an efficient or effective way to function. Certainly there’s nothing new about that thought: researchers have known this for years.

So What Can We Do about It?

Plenty. First off, we can recognize that as 21st-century Americans we’re subjected to far more concurrent demands on our attention than humans are evolved to cope with. Knowing that, we can consciously engineer our activities to enhance focus and cut out distractions.

For example: Working on your computer? Turn off the e-mail programs. If there’s no burning need to know when every minuscule, generally meaningless message comes in, then you’re justified in checking your e-mail three times a day, two times…or even less than that!

Oh, revolutionary!

Extending the rebellion: Get rid of telephone features that distract your attention or interrupt a phone conversation. Do you really need call-waiting? Can anything be ruder than interrupting a phone conversation with the remark that you’ve got to put the person on hold to answer an incoming call (probably from someone sooooo much more important than the person you’re speaking with)? Give each telephone call your undivided attention, and don’t brook any electronic interruptions. Do you really need caller ID, for that matter? Why do you need to interrupt what you’re doing check the identity of every caller and make a decision as to whether to answer the phone? Just let the call go through to your voicemail and decide, at your convenience, which caller you will talk to, and when.

Turn off the television if it’s just running as background noise to an intellectual activity. You’re not really listening to it as you do your homework or office work—you’re interrupting your train of thought to pick up on something that attracts your attention. Switching back and forth, even at a subliminal level, is inefficient, time-consuming, and stressful.

Make a conscious decision to focus on one thing at a time. Recently, for example, I realized that I tend to start things, drop them to do something else, and then delay or never finish the them, especially in the morning. I get up, wash my face, and brush my teeth. While I’m brushing my teeth I turn on the e-mail or the blog program. Then I stumble out and feed the dog. I throw on some clothes and race out to meet La Maya for a morning walk. Then I fix and eat breakfast, trying to read the paper while eating, without much luck. Maybe I water the garden or add water or chemicals to the pool. Then I’m back at the computer. Then I realize I’m late for work. I bathe, wash my hair, throw on some presentable-in-public clothes, bolt toward the door and realize…
…I haven’t put my makeup on;
…I haven’t made the bed;
…I haven’t put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, possibly because
…I haven’t unloaded the clean dishes;
…I haven’t put together the paperwork I need to carry to the credit union today;
…I haven’t put the work I needed to return to the office back in the car;
…I haven’t turned off the water on some plant;
…I haven’t put water or iced leftover coffee in the car for the long drive across the city;
…DAMMIT, I’m not ready to go!!!!!

So as I’m trying to get out the door, I’m racing around tying up a great frayed fringe of loose ends.

There’s a way around this, and it’s simple: Finish every action that gets started before starting a new action. That means finish the WHOLE action. Recognize the entire series of subtasks that constitute an action and get them all done at once. This morning after I washed my face, I put on the light make-up I need to appear more or less alive at the office (i.e., brushing-teeth-and-washing-face also includes painting face). Before leaving the bedroom, I made the bed (getting out of bed entails making the bed). Before wandering out of the kitchen after breakfast, I put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher (preparing and eating a meal includes putting the dishes away).

The gestalt atmosphere that we live in today tends to unlink a given activity’s subactions, so that we leave things undone or get distracted in the middle of a series of actions that really should be regarded as one action. We need to relink the parts of each activity, so we can resist the blandishments of “multitasking” and live our lives in a more coherent, efficient—and dare one say it? meaningful—way.

The Strategy

  1. Dispense with as many distractions as possible.
  2. Be conscious of all the activities an action entails, link them together, and think of them as a single action.
  3. Try to complete each whole action before moving on to something else.

Of course, if you’re a young parent, this is easier said than done: children require attention, and they generally require it sooner than later. Maybe that’s why, so the scientists say, young adults are better able to “multitask” than the rest of us. But maybe what we should do is simply pay full attention to the children. I suspect that at any time of life, we’re likely to be happier and less stressed if we make it a habit to do one thing—one whole thing—at a time.

Be Sociable, Share!
Mary@SimplyForties November 1, 2008 at 4:13 am

I read somewhere fairly recently that when we multi-task we don’t do anything well. I tend to agree with that conclusion. My ability to remember ANYTHING I’m doing is certainly declining with age!

copyeditorsdesk November 7, 2008 at 4:47 pm

LOL! Me, too. But I like to think it’s because I’ve learned to discriminate between what’s worth remembering and what’s…well, really not worth the effort.
;-) Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: