Multitasking. This is a word coined originally to describe the way computers operate, but it soon spread to human behavior. (Merriam-Webster dates its first use as 1966.)
I've been hearing about, reading about, and seeing multitasking for years now. I've been doing it myself for a long time. In this technologically-driven age, I can do a bunch of things at once. I can read the newspaper, watch TV, answer e-mail, talk on the phone, file my nails, and give myself a pedicure while fending off a cat trying to nap on my computer keyboard. When my daughter was a tot, I did all those things plus try to entertain her so I could get some work done.
But just because I can do it, must I do it?
I've been longing more and more for a return to yesteryear. A return to the days when I did one, or at most two, things at a time. Maybe the reason my memory's failing and I can't concentrate isn't so much the hormone swings of menopause, or the natural aging process. Maybe I'm just trying to do too much. Maybe I need to concentrate on one thing at a time. I've lost the feeling of satisfaction I used to get from completing a task, because so often I feel that I could have done it better. Maybe I'm not performing as well because I'm doing too many things at once.
This conclusion, which I've reached more or less on my own, is supported by research.
In Is Multitasking More Efficient?, the American Psychological Association notes that "multitasking may seem more efficient on the surface, but may actually take more time in the end....[T]his insight into executive control may help people choose strategies that maximize their efficiency when multitasking. The insight may also weigh against multitasking." Those conclusions are from a study reported in "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching," Joshua S. Rubinstein, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Atlantic City, N.J.; David E. Meyer and Jeffrey E. Evans, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, Vol 27. No.4.
I downloaded the original article from the APA website, but discovered it was easier to read about it in "Study: Multitasking is counterproductive" on CNN .com, which summarized the findings and also had good comments from the authors.
In "The Autumn of the Multitaskers," the Atlantic Monthly (via writer Walter Kirn) posits the theory that multitasking isn't efficient and it's going to go away. (Interesting, but not likely.)
Time magazine reports in "The Multitasking Generation," "Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks. Some are concerned about the disappearance of mental downtime to relax and reflect." That article also explains that changes in the prefontal cortex make it harder from the very young and for those over, um, a certain age to multitask. (I haven't reached that certain age yet, but it's only a few years away. Apparently my prefrontal cortex has already changed.) The article also says our brains need rest and recovery time to consolidate thoughts and memories. Thus, "Teenagers who fill every quiet moment with a phone call or some kind of e-stimulation may not be getting that needed reprieve. Habitual multitasking may condition their brain to an overexcited state, making it difficult to focus even when they want to."
For the last week or so, I've been trying unitasking--trying to do one thing at a time. I don't turn on the TV while I'm on the computer. I read the newspaper without watching TV, or without sitting at the keyboard to check e-mail. When I get a phone call, I put down my book, or I put the TV on mute, and focus on the call. At the office, when I start a task, I'm trying to complete it before I switch to something else.
You know what? It's hard. I'm addicted to doing several things at once. I'm addicted to trying to "save time" by keeping all those balls in the air. And, to be realistic, I have to acknowledge that there are many areas in life--our jobs, for example--where we don't have a choice. We have to multitask sometimes.
I'm trying to have a Zen attitude about it. I even found a Zen website that gives advice on how NOT to multitask.
Unitasking: a goal to achieve. I'm working on it.
To do two things at once is to do neither.
—Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.