Friday, April 19, 2013


You ever notice how much of the world has taken to multitasking? 

You're talk with someone. Her phone chirps. You speak. She thumbs a reply to the just-arrived text message perhaps nodding or um-humming to the cadence of your words. She thumbs the send button and returns her gaze to you. You're pretty sure she didn't really hear what you just said, so you ask if she'd like you to repeat it. She says, "No, it's OK, I can multitask."

I used to think the popular term "multitasking" was derived from computer science and the development of operating systems that could simultaneously run more than one program. However, I've recently developed a theory that "multitasking" is really code for "I'm only pretending to pay attention to you."

I've tested my theory in several ways (lord knows there are ample opportunities to do so). So far, only a statistically insignificant percentage of test subjects have seemed to truly be capable of multitasking (at least as the term is applied in computer science).  Samples of tests include: 1) contradicting a statement I made while the alleged multitasking was taking place, 2) jumping to a completely different topic without preamble or segue, 3) stopping to ask whether or not the subject agrees or disagrees with my previous statement, and 4) asking the subject what it was that I just said.

As I said, there've been statistically insignificant positive results.

Yup, multitasking has become an epidemic with millions of people feigning interest and concern all the while having no idea what was just said.

Now you might be thinking, "So, what you're saying is that there's really no such thing as a person who can multitask?"

My answer would be, "No."

It's not that people can't multitask. It's just that, generally speaking, no one's any good at it. 

Nonetheless, I see a twofold solution to the challenge. One, limit or avoid unlicensed or poorly implemented multitasking. Two, learn to multitask well.

In truth, we all multitask at one level or another. We breath while we walk. We walk while we talk. We talk while we smell the freshly mowed lawn. These are all basic forms of multitasking and most of us are able to do them. 

Still, even at this level there are times when multitasking doesn't work. For example, have you ever known someone who would walk while listening, but stop to speak. This would be evidence of developmental gap along the path to adult multitasking. There are those who when excited forget to breath while speaking. There are those who get so distracted by a new smell that they completely lose the thread of the conversation. Rudimentary multitasking failures and breakdowns occur all the time.

So, if someone has difficult following a conversational thread when confronted by an unexpected aroma, what's the likelihood that he can construct a text message while listening to someone speaking? Statistically insignificant. Shoot, many of us have difficulty following conversational threads even while not multitasking (at least not obviously.) Fact is, if you lose the thread of a conversation it's likely due to undetected attempts at multitasking.

Thing is, multitasking can be a powerful skill. It's great to be able to play the piano while singing a song or to prepare the portions of a meal simultaneously. However, like any skill, you'll likely have to develop it before you get any good at it.

Next time, we'll talk about how.

Happy Friday,


  1. I love it! I acknowledge that what I call multitasking happens in 2 ways: I'm deliberately using non-competing resources at the same time, so listenting to a podcast or having a conversation while cooking. Or, I'm using competing resources on multiple projects but am rapidly switching from one project to another. Anyone having a phone conversation with me while I'm home with my kids recognizes this as I switch my attention to kids, then back to the person multiple times in the conversation. When I'm doing that, I try to give full disclosure. My attention is going to leave you at some point. My kids are now very good at assessing that :"Mommy, you've left". I realize that I also keep the last second or so of what someone is saying in memory somewhere and when I switch back, I listen to that short clip. If I don't understand it, I must have missed something.

    I'm trying to reduce my practice of scenario 2 and get better at just stopping and paying attention to one thing!

  2. Faith,
    You've pretty much sized it up.

    A couple of thoughts.

    What would happen if you were to take the times you were pretty sure you'd be resource challenged and, instead of trying to balance, just avoid the contention altogether, e.g., not take phone calls at times when you know you're going to be with your kids?

    What would the net impact be? Would you get more done or less? What would the qualitative changes be?

    Alternatively, what could you do to preemptively manage your task switching turning reaction into action?

    What do you think?

    1. I'm thinking about my resistance to the first idea. I think there's a lot there. There are particular people that I don't want to put boundaries on. hmm...

      The second alternative sounds like a refinement I'd like to try on now. Reaction is in itself more resource contentious than action for me. I wait until I feel the resource squeeze. Since I know the contest will occur, managing it by reallocating resources sounds like it would be a relief. I need to build my awareness in the moment, though. I'm pretty dependent on the outside stimulus to alert me to the need to switch tasks...

    2. Hey Faith,

      Whether or not you want to put boundaries upon others, you do.
      You can limit others by what you do; you can limit others by what you don't do.

      So the question of to limit or not to limit is moot. It's always a question of how you limit, not whether or not you do.



Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...