By Lucy Freedman
I was visiting a friend for the weekend, and we met in New York
City for the ride upstate to her house. After we stopped in a
lovely town for lunch, she turned the car toward the highway while
answering a cellular call from a client. I watched as she made
several attempts to find the right entrance, then pulled onto
a ramp that sent us back across the Tappan Zee bridge toward the
Just before that moment, I was admiring her clear-minded ability
to do several things at once. Then she exclaimed, "I can't
believe it. We are going the wrong way!" She finished the
conversation and we negotiated the maze to resume our journey
in the right direction. At what point does the cost of multitasking
outweighs the benefit?
Since then I have been observing the multitasking phenomenon and
wondering how we are going to survive this phase of time management.
I am curious about the impact on our work and communication, as
well as family time, personal balance, and stress management.
The topic recently came up when I was coaching a client team on
applying Syntax skills. People attending meetings by telephone
sometimes prefer to multitask rather than focusing on the relatively
slow verbal communication. The "mute" button means that
no one has to know what you are doing while they sit face-to-face.
Does this reduce the effectiveness of the conversation? What are
the cost of divided attention? What are the effects on decisions
or information sharing?
We might ask, if I don't really need to be attentive, why am I
in the meeting at all? Perhaps some "touch" with team
members is better than none at all. Some meetings may seem chaotic,
and accomplish more than ten separate voice mail or email messages
might do. That seems to be the compromise we make in multitasking:
doing more things with part of my brain is better than not doing
them at all, or doing them separately later.
Efficient multitasking has long been part of any trade or profession.
Homemakers of any period in history know how to overlay the domestic
tasks of the day, and can manage complex schedules of other people
as well. One of the notable characteristic of "gen-ex"
is their ability to do several things at once, having learned
to play computer games, listen to music, do homework, talk on
the phone, watch TV, and eat all at the same time. The other end
of the spectrum is the Buddhist idea of "one-pointedness"
where your attention is focused as much as possible on one aspect
of experience at a time. Definitely high quality attention over
high quantity output.
The criteria for effective multitasking include the match between
duration of two or more activities, without placing too much demand
on the same resources at the same time. If I have two or three
"mindless" tasks going, then I can manage one more that
requires thinking, or more focused attention, such as a phone
conversation with a friend. Machines can provide all kinds of
time for "Swiss cheese" tasks: waiting time for the
'net', downloading messages, printing, washing clothes
Two conversations, or two focused problem-solving processes, or
two contrary mindsets, such as meditation and analysis, just don't
work at the same time. Safety concerns are more and more central
to the design of multitasking Putting on nail polish before driving
for twenty minutes pays off; talking on the phone on a high-speed
highway may not.
I have come to appreciate some time periods where my movement
or communication is limited, so that I catch up on things that
I can't fold into my regular routine. When I cut down on air travel
for work, my paperwork backlog began to overflow. When I drive
a few hours to work or visit friends, I suddenly catch up on news
via radio or listen to a tape that turns out to be a life-enriching
message. Probably a message about healing the effects of the world's
I believe that if I didn't multitask, the legion of little jobs
would never get done. Many of them don't require much attention,
and if I do them in batches, I then will have more free time so
that I can focus on one interesting or enjoyable experience, free
of the nagging of trivia. My goal is to separate the experience
of the whirling dervish efficiency machine from the still, peaceful,
focused sage moving through a world of unnecessary trivia. Perhaps
as we develop cultural and work habits suited to our technological
pace, we can become so skilled that we function way more efficiently
and free ourselves from the burden that technology and constant
communication places on us. It's time to reap some economy of
motion from all the "enabling" that has happened to
Even more important than multitasking well is making sure that
sometimes, your attention is focused on one thing for a while,
or on one person to whom you really listen deeply, or on the silence
and space of meditation. Otherwise your life is being lived in
the center of a multi-lane highway. Use the highway to get somewhere
else; somewhere you would really rather be.
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