One of the most difficult things for me to do is “uni-task”, or just do one thing at a time. Historically, I have been extremely proud of my ability to multi-task. It is something I have practiced daily, without fail, for at least the past 10 years and most likely even longer. I have boasted about this skill in cover letters and in job interviews. I believe it has been seen as a positive thing – this ability to juggle many different tasks and projects all at once.
I don’t believe in the inherent goodness of the multi-task anymore.
I can’t put my finger on one single event that made me change my mind, rather there have been many examples – from all directions – that have eventually swayed me from my position that multi-tasking was “da bomb.”
First, there is the literature, the scientific studies, that have shown that the ability to multi-task is really not all that. In fact, the opposite is true in that every task you are working on simultaneously is not getting your full attention (duh) and therefore suffers. Also, it is not good brain exercise to switch back and forth between tasks. You may have thought it was good – like Zumba for your brain – but nope, it ain’t. Even though you feel like you are able to split your attention between, say, washing the dishes and listening to your child tell a story, or watching the Tour de France and write a blog post, or the most extreme example of all – drive and text – your brain doesn’t work that way. It can’t actually do both at the same time, so it switches back and forth. No matter how fast you think your synapses work, no one’s work that fast.
OK, so there is the literature and the studies. There are also personal examples. One of the things I most remember about my mom when I was growing up was what I saw as her annoying habit to not pay attention to what I was saying. My mom worked full-time out of the house and had an extremely long commute to and from work. I remember many occasions when she would be in the kitchen preparing dinner and I would be talking to her. I would ask her to look at something and she would not even look my way while saying “Oh, yes. I see. Uh-huh.” While I am much more sympathetic to her situation now that I am a working mom of two, at the time I just found it annoying. Now I know she was multi-tasking – and I was getting the short end of the stick. The frightening thing is I have found myself doing exactly the same thing to my kids more times than I would like to admit. So there’s that, too.
If you could see me in the kitchen in the evening, preparing dinner, you would see the dark side of multi-tasking. The dishwasher is open as I unload, the silverware drawer is open, a couple cupboard doors hang open, the water is boiling on the stove, the lettuce is in the spinner in the sink and one carrot is half sliced on the cutting board. Where am I? Probably in the garage folding laundry, because I went out there to get paper towels and realized I had a load of laundry left in the washer from yesterday that needed to dry.
Really. It’s ugly people.
A few nights ago I tried an experiment. While I made the salad I focused on making the salad. That was all I did, until it was complete. This may sound like a relatively simple task to many of you – so you may not understand the depth of my sickness – but I know there are a few of you out there who feel my pain. This was not an easy thing to do. There were several occasions when I had to, literally, tell myself, “If you are making the salad, make the salad.” It felt really good to finish the job and move on to the next without the mental and physical kitchen chaos that usually occurs.
I am going to keep practicing. I’ll let you know how it goes.
When you write, just write,