I forget how old I was when I first heard the term multi-tasking, but I didn’t like it. Multi-tasking struck me as a fancy way to describe laying out your tasks along the most efficient path, so when you have a minute to fold laundry, the laundry has just finished spinning around in the dryer. Research confirms women are better at it than men, which I suspect is an offshoot of our ability to juggle multiple relational-roles in the space of an hour. Nonetheless, the idea that it’s more efficient to do two things at the same time never rang true to me.
There are times when I do two things at once: I play solitaire while I’m walking on my treadmill desk. I do one simple thing with my mind, and one simple thing with my body, but my abilities in this regard are very limited. I can’t, for example, listen to music and do much of anything else except maybe drive a familiar highway. Not write, not balance the check book, not even housework.
Recently, I came across a reference to a study done by a Harvard economist, who wanted to know about women’s emotional states when they’re engaged in various activities. One finding that surprised him was that the gals in his study were not enjoying the time they spent with their own children. Hooboy! That generated a lot of noise about the Frustration of Women in Society Today, and parenting being meaningful but miserable…
The economist had the sense to take another look at his data, and what he found was that much of the time when the mothers were with their children, they were multi-tasking. Trying to pack tomorrow’s lunches while explaining binomial equations (I remember this clearly), dumping the work day’s left over email while watching the obligatory “family” movie, and so forth.
Further research yielded this insight: Even if you’re doing two things you enjoy, trying to accomplish them both at the same time can diminish your enjoyment of both. Think of listening to your three favorite pieces of music at the same time. Bringing your kids along on date night. Playing eye-spy with the grandkids while trying to do your sudoku.
Multi-tasking happily might be a trait that’s spread over a continuum. Many people can spend a pleasant evening doing six things at once, but I’m not one of them. I’m on the one-at-a-time end of the spectrum, and if I wiggle too far from that comfort zone for too long, the result is not pretty. The upside is that when I’m with you, I’m really, really with you. When I’m writing, I’m really, really writing.
One of the reasons I’m a big reader is because it’s not a multi-tasking endeavor for me. I don’t do anything else, not even the tread desk, when I read for pleasure, and I enjoy the reading tremendously.
What about you? Happier juggling fourteen things at once or tackling the to do list one at time? Visiting with the whole gang or meeting for coffee one on one?
To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Traitor.
P.S. As an update to last week: I started putting the computer on the treadmill desk last thing of the day, so it’s sitting there when I get up. I’ve done at least a mile before breakfast every day since making that change. Fingers crossed….
I tend to multi-task when I’m doing any kind of kitchen work, be it for business or pleasure, but then the pace of what I’m making or baking tends to have “breaks” built in — so I can sit and read while one batch of bread is in the oven and another is rising on the board.
When it comes to people, though, I feel cheated if I multi-task when I’m trying to talk to someone — or if they are multi-tasking with me. (Unless we are cooking together!) I don’t listen as well, and that’s especially a problem with my nephews — though they are often all clamoring for attention all at once, creating their own multi-tasking environment!
WhatEVER happened to the notion that you don’t call people during mealtimes? I’m not talking about the occasional “grandma’s in the hospital” interruption, but the notion that I’m meeting YOU for lunch and anybody who happens to call you gets to interrupt that?
I’m with you. People stuff, especially, ought to about the people you’re with.
Agreed! In fact, I won’t answer my phone if I’m sitting down to eat — that is MY time.
I’ve learned to turn my phone off completely if I want to eat a meal in peace.
I prefer not to multi-task because it opens up a multitude of errors. However, my job requires constant multi-tasking, so I stress a lot. Must retire or must find less stressful job.
Sorry to hear the job’s a bad fit, Betty Jean. I saw a poster I didn’t include in the images above: Multi-tasking is trying to put a good name on not being able to focus on the task at hand.
All the research I’ve come across says we don’t really, pay attention to two things at once. We can only hop back and forth between tasks and this is, for most of us, a very inefficient way to work.
I’d vote for another job, one that doesn’t expect the impossible and the inefficient from you daily.
Multi-tasking is something I do almost ALL DAY long not because it’s something I enjoy, it’s just something that happens. There does come a point where the tasks start adding up and then I find myself beyond frustrated and all it takes is for one of the boys to require one more thing and then I completely break down. So I guess it’s not a good thing.
I do try my hardest to concentrate on one task or one boy as often as I can, but I often find my thoughts wandering to what else I could be doing. I don’t like going to the movies because I feel it is a waste of time. If I do watch a movie at home I am usually doing at least one other thing while the movie is on.
Reading is about the only activity that I do tend to concentrate all my energy on and I try to find a nice quiet place to read so I can do this. Of course it usually involves my youngest boy relaxing next to me. So maybe I am multi-tasking while reading???
Get me in a one on one setting with a person and I will definitely give you all my attention, barring that my children are no where around.
Sarah- I think you have a lot on your plate and multi-tasking is a way of life for you now. I feel that a I do less multi talking at home with Jenny older and at college. However, I am expected to multi task at work…so it’s a way of life.
Reading is your quiet time….and I am sure you enjoy it after all the running around you do each day. I snuggle up with a dog and enjoy my quiet time!
What Sue says… my busiest, most pulled-in-all-directions years were the parenting years, and I only had ONE kid. I was also fortunate that nobody expected me to keep up the house to any standards, and for most of those years I was self-employed. Unless I had to be in court, my time was my own to arrange around the parenting priorities.
Hang in there, and read as much as you can!
I cannot multi-task, I didn’t get that gene. When I try, it just leads to frustration for me. If I’m reading, writing, working, or watching a movie, an interruption throws me totally off track. What makes it even worse is that my best friend is queen of the multi-taskers. She works from home, and can be solving a support problem for a co-worker over the phone while chatting with me online, watching a tv program, and planning her dinner for that night. Sheesh!
Sheesh is right! I wonder if she reads much, or if she’s an adaptive case of ADD?
I determined that walking was good for my health. My favorite pasttime is however reading. I decided to combine the two because exercise is not all that interesting. HA! I almost killed myself. I got so engrossed in what I was reading I forgot to pay attention to sidewalks, curbs, and street crossings. I figured out that I had better buy a treadmill and walk with a book in the safety of my home. Maybe next year.
Lol, that would be me!
I play a lot of solitaire on the treadmill desk. That seems to be about the limit of what I can focus on besides walking. I think my reading for pleasure is so special, I don’t want to contaminate it with exercise.
My mother used to say I was “an accident waiting for a place to happen”.
Oh I am so glad I am not the only one that has done that with really bad results… lol
I was fantastic at multitasking while my children were young and I was both father and mother… cook, housekeeper, career woman, night school student. You know…the “Superwoman” of the 80’s and 90’s! It was a wonderful & rewarding time of life. BUT, now that I am older and I do find it harder and harder to multi-task. I am once again that ‘child’ that my mother says was…”the only child I know that falls UP the steps’! ;o)
What I don’t hear is that those busy, busy years of single parenting were fun. Rewarding, yep. Productive, sure. Sense of accomplishment? Roger that.
But my parenting years were also the years of the worst, most frequent migraines; the years when my immune system went haywire and confused my thyroid with an infection; the years when I cried the most.
Superwoman is a tough gig. Nobody should have to do it forever.
Betty she never met me.
If I try multi-tasking, I end up with 100 things partially completed… I am not good with more than 2 things, these might get done, but add anything else and my small mind is blown.
That’s me: I can put on the tea kettle then sit down to write. Is that multi-tasking? Walk and chew gum… more complicated than that, and something will go amiss. I’m told the problem with driving and talking on the phone isn’t that you’re holding your phone to your ear, it’s that you’re having a conversation, period.
Most of us are better off getting one thing done right.
Mostly I would multi-task if there just wasn’t enough time to get everything done. My life isn’t as busy as it was with children. I do admit though that when on the computer, I have the TV on too. I rarely have to pay much attention to the TV unless it’s a movie or something I really want to see (which is rare lol). If I am paying total attention to what I am reading on the computer then I don’t even hear the TV. Most of the time it’s a little of both but neither of those things are really important. When I read, it is usually in total silence (okay maybe a purring cat or a snoring husband lol). I do agree that you can’t do two things at the same time (or more) well but some things just don’t need to be done well – just done lol.
Excellent point. When the socks are matched, they’re matched, and who cares who precisely they’re folded? As long as the brownies aren’t burned, the trash is taken out, etc, good enough is good enough.
But how often do you confuse being in the same room with your kids with parenting them? I suspect the kids know the difference, and they’ve learned to manage three devices at the same time as a result.
Lucky for me there was no internet when I was raising my kids. My happiest times were playing with my them. I had no problem doing only the minimum amount of housework lol.
I really prefer not to multi-task if I can avoid it – and being retired now, I really don’t have to – thank God. But I think that’s just me. I worked with a woman once who thrived on doing many things at once. She was a real “fly by the seat of her pants” kind of gal – but it was natural for her. She would have been stressed if she was only doing one thing at a time. So there are a few people out there that it doesn’t make a wreck out of.
The only time I actually wanted to do more than one thing at a time was when I did my homework in high school. I remember many an argument with my mother about how I could actually do my homework much better while watching American Bandstand (smile).
American Bandstand? AMERICAN BANDSTAND? ARGH… I know some people like to work with music playing softly, but even if it’s classical music, my brain can’t treat it as a background. I must LISTEN.
I multi-task at work all day long , some days I am better at it than others!
This week, I was answering phone calls and researching and writing up an adjustment to a customer inquiry between calls. I left my desk to help someone, got a call and went back to the inquiry. And yes…I made an error in the request which my supervisor read. And yikes… It was the last word…! My supervisor knew what a I meant, emailed me and approved the request. So, I can do 2 things at a time, not three! 🙂
If I am muti tasking at home, I set the kitchen timer to remind me when to take the brownies out of the oven, when to switch the laundry over and when a movie is on tv. It works…
Have a lot of little things to do today. I made a list and decided that making dinner was not going to be one of them. The Mister went grocery shopping and picked up dinner while I bathed 2 dogs and did laundry. Works for me!
I enjoy walking, reading and writing because there is no multi-tasking….simply cannot be done. I walk in the morning and read each night before bed. Very enjoyable.
I like the one on one time with friends. Feel that I can focus and listen to to a friend it it’s the two of us. My group of friends gets together on a regular basis and it’s fun to catch up over dinner and drinks no serious conversation.
I use a timer too, Sue. I use it to get my off my backside regularly when I’m writing. I use it to remind me I’ve put eggs on to boil or samosas in the oven. Pretty soon, it will be cool enough (and un-buggy enough) to walk outside in the morning rather on the tread desk.
I’m looking forward to that. I’m convinced that time outside is good for us.
Grace I’ve probably got another month at least before it’s cool enough for me to enjoy walking outside unless I’m going to or from the bus stop. One nice thing this summer is we’ve had a good breeze blowing most of the time.
Multi-task or focus on one task: It depends on the tasks and situation. If I am reviewing something and providing comments, I like to focus only on that task. If I am managing a project I am at my best when I multi-task. When it comes to household chores, I multitask while doing laundry and kitchen stuff, but not while dusting and vacuuming. I absolutely do not multi-task when I wish to read a historical romance, unless I am reading it as a second “task” while doing something else, such as updates to my computer.
You are one organized lady, Terry. I’ll bet your house is clean, your files are backed up, and you meet your project deadlines. I’m impressed, but I also know you have the reward of a good historical romance waiting for you at the end of that productive day!
The only multi-tasking I do is ride a stationary bike while reading, or listening to music while doing anything else. Of course, I don’t really hear the music, it’s just in the background, but it’s very hard for me to just sit and listen to music alone. Other than that, I only do one thing at a time, because I can’t concentrate on more than one thing or it takes twice as long and neither gets done well.
Exactly what you said: it takes twice as long and neither task gets done well. When will corporate America figure that out?
I tend to feel slightly unsettled when just doing one thing at a time. I just feel like I am wasting time. I must say though that as I get older I do less multi-tasking. I think it has more to do with patience for me. I am always thinking ” as I am doing this, I can also do that and be finished that much sooner” and that works for me. As I am sitting there talking to someone at my house, my mind starts to wander and thinking that I should do this or that while I am talking, because I am wasting time just sitting there. I think I listen better, because I am not letting my mind wander about what I could be doing. I must say, I DRIVES MY HUSBAND CRAZY! He thinks it is rude when I don’t sit and give him my complete attention. So for him I try to do that, but my mind is wandering…. just saying. Lol!
Mary, took me a long time to understand that my mom’s penchant for ceaseless activity was managing her anxiety–and a few other emotions, too. The house was her briar patch, and she poured a lot of creativity, frustration, determination and energy into it.
Maybe if your husband would help you get through the to do list, he’d find you could focus on his scintillating conversation more exclusively.
Good for you, Grace! I’m sure then that you are aware of all of the studies that show that multi-tasking is terrible for the brain – it destroys memory and focus. I purposely avoid it as much as I am able. I also feel that meditation allows me to focus better.
Meditation is magic stuff, if you can make the time for it, and yes, I’ve seen the research that says trying to focus on too many things at once is bad for the brain… but there are people who are happiest in that state (like Bonnie’s friend), and I think it’s becoming normal for most young people.
I simply do not believe in the traditional concept of multitasking. No one can truly be doing two tasks at once! I do believe in the ability to change focus quickly and often. It’s a true talent. I can maintain it in certain situations – work on a document on the computer, stop to answer the phone, take a query from a co-worker and then go back to the document. But each of those tasks is the ONE thing I’m doing at any different second in time.
Catherine, you’ve summarized millions of dollars of research pretty handily. We don’t multitask very much, outside of reading on the exercise bike, or singing along to the play list while we dust. When it comes to the analytical brain, we do one thing at a time, just as we focus our gaze one place at a time.
So I wonder where the term originated and who thought it was a good idea?
multi-task a couple things
I totally agree! I *can* multitask! but it don’t find it fun or rewarding. I also don”t do any of those tasks really well. And the most I can do while reading is eat finger snacks.
I can do all kinds of things while I read. I can walk, bike, sit at stop lights, wait in lines…
I even read while I’m brushing my teeth!
Definitely do NOT multitask well. I like “total emersion” in what I am doing and that is when I do my best work. My problem comes when I surface. I find myself reading the email too often, doing little things and not getting back to the “big rocks” from the rocks, pebble, sand in a jar story.
I multi task at work and sometimes at home. I find that I get things done faster that way. I am a busy type of person so multi taking is no big deal for me. I even find that I look for things to do once I finish the tasks.
Congratulations on the treadmill miles, Grace!
I mostly do better with one thing at a time on the to do list especially at work but I can easily multitask some things.
For example, when I’m home and able to do the cooking for dinner, I can enjoy the conversations with my husband and children – especially since polynomials are history in my house. 😉 The same goes for most household chores since I do not usually need great mental concentration to clean house or fold clothes.
Reading is definitely something I don’t like to try to ‘fit in’ and multitask during.
I do enjoy getting together with groups at times, but I do feel most relationships are better off with that one on one time that can be so very difficult to find. This was made very clear just last week when I ran into one of my friends at the Salt Lake City airport. We had flight delays on our way home from vacation and they were on their way up to the same area. It has been so long since we had been able to just sit and talk that we didn’t realize there was a chance we would cross paths.
Sometimes I looked back when my kids were little and I worked full time, plus volunteer work, and I don’t know how I did it all. I just don’t have that kind of energy now, and cannot function without a list. On the other hand, I don’t spent the small stuff too much, any more!
Laundry, cooking, cleaning all get done at the same time. If I’m not doing several things at once, I feel like I’m forgetting something. I guess it’s a by-product of the Day Job.
Police dispatchers and 911 operators are taught from day one to multi-task. It’s not something that comes naturally and it takes several months to get to a level above basic competence. We must be able to type, talk and think critically in high stress situations, all while trying to calm a person down. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with a person while typing a business email in the middle of a shopping mall with small children running around screaming?
Yeah, during a hot call, that’s what it’s like. I have to guide a caller’s answers to get all the pertinent information from the caller while typing it into the system. I have officers and other dispatchers in the background asking additional questions, while phones are ringing and other calls are coming in. On any given day I am a therapist, family counselor, suicide prevention hotline, emotional support and voice of reason. Usually a combination of them all.
I guess that’s why I am take such pleasure in solitude. The only things I do on their own are reading, writing and watching the occasional t.v. Having so much responsibility for 12-16 hours a day makes me appreciate the silence, when I get it.
It also make me appreciate my small circle of non-work friends and writing colleagues even more. A quiet conversation over dinner or a rousing evening of board games makes me very grateful indeed!
I cannot multi-task to save my life. I seem to have one of those one-track minds. If I am into a TV show, I tend to tune out everything else. I am the same way with reading (unless I hear a “distress” call from one of my kids) people have to usually touch my arm or do something else to get my attention. That is why I am so thankful for timers and alarms otherwise stuff in the oven or the dryer will be there for the foreseeable future. 🙂
My work is about multi-tasking. At home I do watch TV while I ride my stationary bicycle. I prefer one task at a time.
If what I’m doing needs a lot of concentration that I’d probably not multitask. I’d prefer to focus on it & get it done right & more efficiently. Except maybe eating & watching tv. Does that count as multitasking? 🙂
I used to think I was a great multitasker. I now realize I wasn’t doing anything well. I was going through the motions and was present for very little of my life. At this stage in my life, I concentrate on my tasks. I used to want music when I walk, but even now, that happens less and less. The lyrics get in he way of my thoughts. (Oh, the thinks you can think!)
Recently if learned that listening to a book from Audible.com is great fun while I’m driving somewhere. If I have to shop all morning driving from place to place it make the task more fun to listen to a book. Audible allows you to read or listen and keep your place. This is not an push for Audible. I usually read on my Kindle. I guess I am multi-tasking when I do this and make one task less tiring.
I agree with you Grace; there are things I multi-task and things I do not. While I read…I do nothing else. No music, no TV no nothing, just me and my book. While I do household chores I can multi-task. Two of the easiest are cooking and laundry;cleaning and laundry; TV and laundry…I really hate laundry and usually pair it with something to take my mind off of it. “People stuff”, however, should NEVER be multi-tasked with anything else.
Grace I detest the term multi-tasking to me I don’t seem to accomplish much when I do it as it seems counterproductive. When I read for pleasure I don’t want to do anything else. In fact I’ve gotten so I prefer “the sounds of silence” so I turn off the radio if it’s on so I can truly enjoy what I’m reading, especially if it’s one of your books. Please omit my name from your drawing as I’ve already read The Traitor and am eagerly awaiting The Laird. Meanwhile I’m devouring Sabrina Jefferies latest and will soon have a Loree Lough book to read, I’ll be well occupied book wise until September 2.
I find that when I try to multi-task, I ended up with multi-task ADD… I can’t finish anything! Squirrel!!!
Grace, I am the same as you when I read. I go up to my own space and relax and just read. My one thing I do for me. Once a month I get a pedicure and I read then too, so it’s two things I do for myself at a time!!
However, do not confuse setting things in sequential motions with traditional term Multitasking. Every woman I’ve ever met does things like puts on laundry, lets the dog out, cleans the bathroom and considers herself multi tasking.
That said, my sis is one of these like others on this blog who are on the computer firing off emails and researching something and watching her kid. But she doesnt really hear what her kid is saying (she disagrees, but I have tested and know the truth). And the emails tend to be disjointed thoughts. Nevertheless, she would not be “happy: if she was not doing all these things. I suspect she can’t stand herself when she’s alone with herself. This offended her when I asked, but observation at work, people are bored in their own heads.
I don’t really understand it, as the universe in my head is quite entertaining. But then, I easily fade out of reality when I am doing boring tasks or just having to sit and wait. I can easily sit still 20 minutes (tested this and know for sure. My limit is 1 hour 15 minutes. But I digress into my own self centered life.
I will not say multitasking is impossible. I will concur heavily that multi taskers rarely do it all well. And usually it ends up being us boring one-thing-at-a-timers that fixes their snafus. And we suually forgive thiem because they are so ‘driven” and “accomplished”.
But if you are ever in a job interview, tell them you can multitask even if you can’t. That’s the way it works out there these days. And then keep job hunting. Just my life experience.
Reading wise, I’m still waiting for my library to get Trenton in. But they already have Traitor and ..uh, I think the other is Laird. Go figure. So I guess there’s proof for Sourcebooks that this new series is considered to be popular.
Ah, I incorectly id’ed story earlier. the other book was Captive. What was I thinking, LOL!
Forward, always forward.
Wow, I am a multi-tasker! I never just sit & watch a movie without crocheting or folding laundry or come January, I will be sorting receipts for my taxes–lol…But when our grown son comes to visit, we sit at the table & play Scrabble & we often go to the “bargain day” at the local movie theater (where it is too dark to do anything else)…Though my mind can concentrate on a few things, our kids like to rent & watch movies with British actors (then I have to use the closed captions or I miss too much of the dialogue)…So, maybe just relaxing & doing just one thing isn’t that bad!
Hi Grace and everyone!!!! I have been so busy that I have not been online at all… well things that get my attention and of course I CANT really multitask… wish I could… but I totally hate to do it… the only way I can its if I make a list.
If I am cleaning my room then I do laundry . but I have to remember to get the clothes out of the washer or dryer… so many times clothes had to be washed again because I just got sidetracked and totally forgot to do it!
For the past 7 years since I became a nurse I have had 2 bosses that are the female version of Speedy Gonzalez… It absolutely drove me nuts. They can’t stop. They are talking with you but any of their 2 phones make any noise they grab it and text back. I was so happy when the company send a paper so you sign that you are not supposed to use any electronic device while driving!!!! yay… that is progress… I hate it doing it… so dangerous… I used to tell both of them jokingly but in all seriousness ” Can I have your undivided attention for 5 minutes ? sometimes they said ok, but they lied… the phone rang and there they went…
I love to read and sit somewhere nice and really enjoy it… reading is really my vice… I read every single day… can’t help it… I am totally bad regarding walking.
Hats off to you for walking… keep going…
I am so excited I start a new job next monday!!!!! yay finally!!!!
Grace…I have absolutely loved all your books. Have read every last one. Can’t wait for Tuesday. The Duke of Mercia was definitely my favourite (so far) in this trilogy but Sebastian was a close second!
i know i am late to this post but had to put in my two cents worth – when i was younger — i could read a book, knit, and watch a movie with hubbie all at same time – now i just want to do one thing at a time – but
never could listen to an audio book – unless was on the road and then i would miss exits on the interstate!
Multitasking is for the young
and NOT to be used for pleasurable activities — if i am at the beach – i am NOT going to be reading a book!
I’m fascinated by your comments about multitasking. I have a 50 year old daughter (chemical engineer – Princeton) who is incapable of multitasking. Her husband is a whiz at multitasking.
I do not like to learn new things until I need to use them and can be slow at catching on. Once I have the ability it’s like perfection. Never let’s me down.
I’ delighted with facts or current opinions of the intelligentsia that you provide in this blog. that is one of the things I love in your books the unexpected twists in your books that make sense.
I’m glad to know I fall into the category of 35% less chance of
Hi Grace –
I’ve always thought that it’s better to do one thing correctly at a time and to finish the task then “multi-tasking”.
I think the idea of multi-tasking was invented by bosses (like mine) who wanted their employees to do more work for the same pay but also with fewer hours to do everything. Of course the results usually are things not being completed, lots of frustration and un-happy employees.
Maybe it’s because I’m a working senior citizen but I was taught at a young age that if you were going to do something to do well and to do one task until completion.