The Trouble with Multitasking

Patti - Idaho Falls, Idaho
Entered on February 18, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65

I believe we need to give up multitasking.

Multitasking, which nearly every employer lists these days as a necessary job qualification, enshrines frantic behavior and discredits those who carry out jobs with quiet, single-minded focus.

We share roadways with motorists who are eating lunch, talking on cell phones and learning to speak Japanese. Women say with pride, “Of course I know how to multitask. I’m a mother.” We don’t ask ourselves whether we might do tasks better if we did them singly.

When I was a child, I took piano lessons at my grandmother’s music studio. Twice a week we children had to sit through the faltering lessons of other pupils. My short-tempered grandmother permitted no talking or fidgeting. She made us sit attentively so we could have a pure experience of music.

I believed those afternoons would make me grow up to hate music. Instead, as an adult, I find myself uneasy in friends’ homes when background music plays. I feel I ought to sit down, fold my hands, and give respectful attention to the stereo.

It is instinctive for us to want to be totally absorbed. We dislike people talking in movies or children crying in restaurants. We want to stand beside a quiet lake without the disruption of loud engines. But our culture urges us to combine many activities at once.

A couple of years ago, I undertook a Lenten discipline of eating one meal a day, breakfast, mindfully. The first morning of my new program, I sat down to a good meal. Three seconds later, I jumped up to let in the dogs. I returned, ate a bite, then bounded upstairs to plug in my hair dryer. I came back and switched on the news without thinking. A letter beside my plate beckoned to be opened. My omelet cooled.

It took me the entire forty days of Lent to retrain myself to eat breakfast without accomplishing other things. Food, I noticed, tasted really good. I try to remember that now, and refrain from reading, driving, or standing while eating.

It’s true some endeavors don’t want our full concentration. I clean toilets while talking on the phone. A long, tedious car trip can be improved by listening to music or news programs.

Yet, our compulsion for self-improvement and our need to feel useful make us crowd our moments with as many tasks as we can dream up. Seldom do we let ourselves have the pleasure of concentrating on one thing alone.

Last summer I found myself driving on what may be the most breathtaking road in America. I scarcely noticed the view because I’d become lost in an audio book. Getting immersed in a book is a great pleasure, but so are spectacular mountains. I believe I am happier and more peaceful when I experience each thing individually and fully.