My Anti-Multitasking Experiment

Thank goodness for AJ Jacobs. This is a man who knows how to write for attention-defunct brains. His chapters are short and concise and sprinkled throughout with humor (to keep my monkey mind on task), and I can sit down to read one and complete it in a relatively short time, limiting the amount of interruptions, both external (“Mom! I need my jeans!”) and internal (I probably ought to throw that load of laundry in pretty soon.)

He does all of this, in many cases backed up by research that he explains in a simple, digestible way.
When I was reading My Life as an Experiment on my recent vacation, I was struck by one chapter in particular where Jacobs spends thirty days avoiding multitasking. Like most of us in Western societies with access to a multitude of technological toys and the perception that we need to be PRODUCTIVE above all else, he noticed that he had become increasingly unable to do anything with his full attention. I could give you examples, but I suspect many of you are lowering your heads right now under the weight of your own realizations. He did some digging and discovered that there is more than one research study showing that multitasking is, in all reality, much less efficient and more time consuming than simply doing one thing at a time. It also tends to split our attention to the point where we don’t produce quality work like we would if we were single-minded. Over time, multitasking erodes our cognitive abilities to the point where our attention spans become pathetic little fleas, jumping from one side of the dog’s rump to the other to find a tasty meal. Yikes!
I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter describing Jacobs’ attempts to eliminate multitasking in his own life and decided to try it on my own. Disclaimer: I decided this while on vacation – away from home without the normal tasks of cooking meals, keeping house, driving kids to and from school and other activities, etc. I suspect it wouldn’t have seemed nearly as possible an undertaking if I hadn’t been lying near the pool in the sunshine when I decided this…
Upon arriving home, I began. For ten days I resisted efforts to empty the dishwasher while making my latte, check Facebook or email while writing a blog post or a book review, help Lola rehearse her lines for an upcoming play while folding laundry and watching the Oregon Ducks play football. It was hard. Really hard.
But I learned some valuable things.
1. When I multitask, I often start 57 things and only ever finish about 20 of them in a day. I have this frantic perception that if I don’t at least start something RIGHT NOW that I’ll forget I wanted to do it and it will be lost to the ether. When I explore that notion, I realize that if I forget I wanted to do it, it probably wasn’t all that valuable a task in the first place and, it doesn’t much matter that I started it if I don’t ever finish the damn thing.
2. The more balls I have in the air, the more I have to worry about one dropping. It turns out that only doing one thing at a time is really calming. When I’m writing a book review and force myself to trust that All of Those Other Tasks Who Shall Not Be Named will wait, some part of my brain is given permission to shut down and rest for a bit. And that book review or blog post or letter to a teacher gets written much more quickly.
3. When I practice not multitasking with people (typing an email while I’m on the phone with my mother, playing a board game with Lola while helping Eve with homework, etc), they feel good. I can honestly say that, while it was terrifically challenging, using this tactic with Eve on her most recent homework project contributed to our ultimate success in completing it.
It occurred to me yesterday that multitasking is overkill. When I think about it, our bodies are already working really hard on several fronts simultaneously – pumping blood, creating white blood cells to knock off that cold virus we picked up from our kids, taking in visual information and processing it, moving our bodies through space, breathing, the list goes on… To ask them to do more than that is cruel and unusual punishment.
My single-mindedness has fallen off a bit of late. Old habits die hard, I guess, and Bubba has been out of town a lot lately. But when I recall the feeling of utter calm that came over me when I asked myself to do only one thing at a time, I am motivated to continue striving to get better at it.
9 replies
  1. Astra
    Astra says:

    Good for you for trying it out! Avoiding multi-tasking or just selective memory? Hmmm. See, I'm at that age where I forget half the stuff I started so I guess I'm not really multi-tasking anymore. My experiment is going ok 🙂

  2. kelli
    kelli says:

    I'm glad I found this post. It's a reminder to take things slow again.Things get pretty hectic come school time. You might also be interested that there is a book called Cleaning and the Meaning of Life. It's basically about the same thing,except it's about cleaning. I can't say I like cleaning anymore than I did before but I've learned to stop multi-tasking so much. Wonders of all wonders, focusing on one thing at a time is actually more productive.

  3. Dee Ready
    Dee Ready says:

    Dear Kari,
    This posting speaks loud and clear to me. I have noticed in the past couple of years that more and more I have lost my focus. My life now skitters from one thing to another. I never truly get to suck the juice out of an experience because I'm doing the next one as an overlap.

    Some have sneered at tunnel vision because it keeps people from the gestalt of realizing potential, but a little tunnel vision in the sense of reverently doing one thing at a time–as you did with helping Eve with her homework (I so liked that posting–will I think be truly beneficial to me.

    Thank you. I'm starting right now by not reading that e-mail that just clanged its arrival on my computer!


  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I think you have a great point. Multi-tasking is highly overrated and really produces unproductive habits. It's funny though how many job descriptions list the "ability to multitask" as one of the criteria for the positions. Scary!

  5. Wanda
    Wanda says:

    What a wonderful pursuit. I am not sure there are enough hours in the day any more to do that, but it is worth keeping in mind. Good for you. I am glad you found your focus–even for a while.

  6. Deb Shucka
    Deb Shucka says:

    In a conversation about respect with my students last week, one said that respect is listening to someone without doing something else at the same time. The kids get this in ways we've long forgotten. Thanks for the great reminder. Maybe you need to go back to Hawaii more often?

  7. Sandi
    Sandi says:

    Hi Kario,
    Well, this one hit me right where it needed to! I have been slowly giving up on my former belief that I can do ten things at once, as I've been burning up pots on the stove, and leaving the shower running for half an hour, and such things as that recently! I really need to focus my all on what is the one thing that needs my attention.

    That brings me to your response on my post today. Thank you for taking the time to write such a powerful and thought provoking comment. I appreciate so much your willingness to reach out with the reminder to take care of my body. No one else is going to do that for me. I am so grateful you stopped by today.

  8. Lauren Wayne
    Lauren Wayne says:

    So interesting. I've been reading about how multitasking doesn't really work well but never thought to try my own experiment on it. I can already sense the calm that would result.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *