I’m not sure when it started, but at some point in my lifetime, multitasking became cool. The whole concept of doing a bunch of things at once went from what unorganized, harried people did to keep their heads above water — all that screaming and dog-paddling and trying not to drown — to something that people bragged about, something that people took pride in, something that was absolutely critical to success. It became a skill.
I, of course, didn’t have that particular set of skills.
It’s hard being a unitasker in a multitasking world. Your boss expects you to get those three things done before noon while watching out for this and scheduling that and, hey, you have those two meetings this afternoon that you have to get ready for and you need to find room to squeeze in a workout and, dammit, your wife’s birthday is coming up and … well, something’s gotta give.
(Unitaskers are things, by the way. Just not in the particular way I’m using the term. Still, click on the link. It’s funny.)
So, you wannabe multitasker, you instead put on a couple pounds after a few missed trips to the gym, and you end up grabbing some flowers from Kroger on the way home, and you blow off that meeting and half-ass that job and you miss a deadline. But, damn, you killed that one thing. There’s that, anyway.
Or, not even in work: You’re watching TV, or you’re reading the paper (remember those?), or you’re doing something useful around the house and your better half — who, by the way, is seemingly awesome at multitasking — says something. You think. Two weeks later, it’s “When did you tell me that? I don’t remember you saying that? Why are you yelling at me?”
This is one of the reasons I love playing basketball. There are plenty of things to think about when you’re out on the court: Setting picks, taking a pick, moving without the ball, dribbling, boxing out, keeping your elbow under the shot, finishing high, snapping your wrist, that split-second decision when you have to choose whether to go over or under a screen, recognizing whether your defender is going over or under the screen, watching for that guy who likes to come up under you when you grab a rebound, moving the ball around, seeing that defender who likes to cheat off his man, seeing when your man is cheating off you. And about a million other things.
But playing hoops is, in the end, a singular task. You’re not thinking about your workload, or your home life, or your aching knees or your bank account. You’re not worried that your inbox is filling up or your cholesterol is too high. You don’t have to set an example or make an impression or smooth over rough spots or suck up. You’re just playing.
Or, in my case, you’re just trying not to make a fool out of yourself. Or, if I’m multitasking at all on the basketball court, it’s trying not to make a fool of myself while desperately trying not to get hurt. In any case — in all cases — it’s beautiful.
The awesome part of the whole concept of multitasking is that it’s clear now that it isn’t a skill after all. Science says so. Multitasking is a myth. Probably started by your boss.
We don’t multitask. Not really None of us do. Our minds simply zip between different jobs. Scientists have found that our brain can do only two things at once, basically this: Pick out a single job and get the body moving on that one job.
If we try really hard, we can do two tasks at once. But the brain is less efficient when it’s trying to do that and — this is important — makes more mistakes. Three times as many mistakes. And when you add other jobs, it becomes even more frazzled as it races around among all those jobs, stopping and re-starting, switching and re-starting, switching back and re-starting again, and that affects the brain and how well it works.
Eventually, we’re fried and we need to sit down and watch TV and fall asleep on the couch. Or maybe that’s just me.
Like a lot of sciencey things, we probably all know this to be true without all the tests and MRIs that researchers use. We know that, say, texting and driving doesn’t work. If you can do both those at once, you’re not multitasking. You’re asking for it.
We know that, while watching TV and tooling around on our phones, something suffers. Or some things. Answering emails and writing a report? Talking on the phone and reading? Talking with someone and texting someone else?
We switch between things. We don’t multitask.
All this explains why one of journalism’s most basic tasks — interviewing — can be so tricky. It’s easy to ask questions and listen. It’s a hell of a lot harder to ask questions, listen, jot down notes, scratch out a quote that seems important at the time, check your notes to make sure you ask the questions you came in with, check that your voice recorder isn’t still on pause and get all the information down in a manner that, when you open your notebook later, it doesn’t look like alien sketchings in a cornfield. Truth be told, most of us never get beyond asking questions before the whole process turns to mud.
We all try, everybody, to get everything done in this over-connected world that we want to do. But instead of trying to juggle all those things, science tells us, it’s probably best to concentrate on one thing at a time. Do it well. Then move on.
A final example: I have at least 10 posts started for the blog that I have to finish. I’m going to get to them. I will. One at a time.
But right now, I’m going to step away from the laptop and do what the neuroscientist in the video below says.
I’m taking a break. A multiminute break.