The Joys of Multi-tasking

Multi-taskingI have long prided myself on being a multi-tasker. The ability to multi-task, to take on two or five tasks at once, helped me sail through college and kick-started my Air Force career. Even as recently as a couple of years ago, I gloried in watching TV and working the NYT crossword simultaneously, having a phone conversation and writing a book synopsis, compiling a grocery list while having sex (Did I say that out loud?), or painting my toenails while sorting expense receipts for my taxes. People frequently told me I got more done by Monday noon than most people accomplished in a week.

Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

It’s not that I can’t multi-task effectively anymore (although it’s getting tougher as my aging brain has more trouble retrieving specific files). It’s no longer satisfying. I find myself wanting to lose myself in one activity at a time, wanting to focus on doing one task well, rather than three or four things half-assed and quickly. This is especially true when other people are involved. It’s hard to be really engaged in a conversation, really listening to someone, if a sliver of my brain is trying to come up with a seven-letter word for obstreperous, and another sliver is keeping an eye on the latest episode of Dancing with the Stars. Ooh, love the fringe on that samba ensemble . . . Fractious? Defiant? . . . What kind of cancer did you say you have? My friends and family deserve my full attention. (Telemarketers . . . not so much.) My wake-up call came when I realized that the irritation I felt when people texted while we were lunching or having a conversation was hypocritical. I’d essentially been doing the same thing, just on a landline (remember those?) where the other person didn’t necessarily know I was half-ignoring him.

A Moratorium on Multi-tasking

So, I’m working on letting go of my compulsion to multi-task. Clearly, I haven’t totally succeeded, since I’ve checked my email twice while writing this post. Gaaagh! However, I’m making strides. I’m trying to be “in the moment,” to focus on each task consecutively, to inhabit a task, rather than trying to distract myself from it. There is a certain satisfaction in scrubbing oatmeal blobs off the counter, writing a heart-felt thank-you note to a friend, and noticing the variety of bird calls while on a walk (rather than simultaneously trying to sort out a sticky plot point). The payoff seems to be a calmer mind, less stress, and a greater enjoyment of each activity.
I may get less done now that I’ve (mostly) given up multi-tasking, but since I’ve gradually come to realize that much of what I (we?) do has little intrinsic value anyway, that may be an added bonus: it compels me to focus on what’s really important. What about you? Do you think multi-tasking has more pluses or minuses?