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….