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Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

Can't live with it, can't live without it. How to stay sane?

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 city.

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 distractions!

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 us.

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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