Technology is what is now being blamed for multitasking overload. In some situations, that is certainly the case. In other situations, the issue might be too much work, an inefficient office, or just boredom with the job or school work. We can change some of those conditions and not others—but we cannot even sort out what is causing our frustration, exhaustion, or sense of failure until we understand what multitasking is. Once we realize that multitasking itself is the human condition—not an outcome only of too much email or social networking—then we can find practical ways to address the real problem, not the mythical one.
Let’s start with a definition:
Multitasking, v. to perform a combination of activities, thoughts, and/or operations that demand enough of your attention that you are aware that you are accomplishing something unusual or special.
You may be convinced you are a Multitasking God, performing the tasks brilliantly. Or you may be positive you are a Multitasking Failure, performing them ineptly.
What defines “multitasking” is awareness: something in the nature of the tasks or your skill at carrying them out at that moment makes you aware of your performance.
Example 1: Let’s say you are crossing a busy street while laughing and chatting with friends. If you do that without anxiety or incident, you will not be aware that you are multitasking (juggling a range of attention-grabbing activities at once). You’re simply, so far as you’re aware, crossing a street with friends.
However, a sudden screeching of brakes and the blare of a taxi horn five feet away might shake you from that complacency and make you aware that you are carrying out several tasks that each demand more of your attention than you previously thought. Now you are aware that, for maximum safety, you shouldn’t be talking and laughing while crossing a tricky intersection.
The brakes and horn make you aware that you are multitasking and not doing a good job of it. The way memory is enhanced by adrenalin, the next time you cross a street you may well decide not to talk and laugh with your pals. [Thought Experiment: if your near-miss experience at the intersection makes you nervous and more cautious in the future, are you suddenly less capable of multitasking your attention? Or are you now wiser about the dangers of busy streets?]
Monotasking is a myth. There is almost nothing we do in life that doesn’t require a combination of activities, thoughts, and actions. LBJ famously mocked a fellow politician who, he said, couldn’t “walk and chew gum” (except he said something cruder than “walk”). Not being able to do simple, multiple tasks at once is a sign of ineptness.
We multitask all the time without thinking about it. We rarely track our skill at combining tasks when they are habitual and uninterrupted, when all seems to be going just the way it “always does.” When something intrudes on our patterns, we are suddenly aware of the competing demands on our attention made by the separate tasks and, as in the example of the taxi cab, sometimes we realize that we’ve put ourselves in a negative situation because we’ve tried to do too much at once.
Note: Once we become aware of our multitasking, the number of tasks we’re juggling doesn’t change. What changes is our attention level to the juggling itself and, in the taxi example, our anxiety about the consequences of the juggling.
Example 2: Let’s say you are doing your homework listening to a great new Rihanna album. You look at the clock and see it is midnight. Homework that should have taken you twenty minutes has stretched out to two hours but you’ve heard the whole album, Facebook’d your friends about it, tweeted out some quips and recommendations. Are you a multitasking failure? Or did you turn a boring, arduous task into a pleasant, social, music-filled evening?
Example 3: Your have a proposal due at 3 but the bracket party in the next office is ruining your concentration.
Example 4: You have a proposal due at 3 but you keep being distracted by all the emails, tweets, and Facebook notices about a close game in the finals of the NCAA tournament.
These examples all involve accomplishing a routine task—doing homeworking, finishing a business proposal—when we want to be doing something else. We can blame technology for our inefficiency but the real issue is competing desires that yield competing desires on our attention. Another friend might be indifferent to the Rihanna album or to basketball and have no problem getting the homework or the proposal done, despite the same distraction. They are able to multitask listening to music and doing homework or handling emails and writing a proposal because their interests and desires (Rihanna, basketball) are not competing for attention with their duties (homework, proposal).
So it is with everything. It is hard to think of anything we do as humans that is “monotasking”: lying in bed at night, with absolutely no distractions around us, our mind can race madly. Sitting in a room without iTunes or in an office without a party down the hall, the homework can still take two hours and the proposal not get finished on time.
Why? There is no answer to that question but the distraction can be useful in helping us to think about why we have certain habits, why we have certain priorities, and which habits and priorities are working for us and which are not.
If in fact technology is proving to be a distraction and keeping you from the things you want or need to be accomplishing, then be introspective, figure out what is keeping you from getting done what you want or need to get done, and eliminate that source of distractions—in the same way that, post screeching taxi tires and blaring home—you stop talking and laughing when you come to a busy street.
Instead of blaming technology, as if the simple fact of technology dooms us to unhappy lives, it is useful to ask what is distracting us, why, and how can we adjust our behavior—our activities and thoughts—to allow for the optimal completion of the tasks we need to complete. Until we dispel the myth of monotasking, we are powerless. Once we understand that “distraction is our friend,” we can use our own frustration to help diagnose the real issue and begin to cure the problem.