O, to be a successful multitasking woman!
A modern woman should be able to simultaneously cook dinner, fold laundry and help the kids with their math homework. (Assuming an educated person over twenty-five is able to comprehend how math is taught in elementary schools these days. This may be a bad assumption.)
It is assumed that any successful person can multitask: checking email while attending a meeting, dictating a letter via bluetooth headset while grocery shopping, participating in a virtual meeting while driving. [Please note that texting while driving, applying fingernail polish while driving, or attempting to feed the baby while conducting a phone interview for a potential job are not suitable examples of wise multitasking.]
In today’s busy world, we are all involved in multiple activities and organizations, and we need to cram as much as possible into every waking hour. Multitasking, so it would seem, is the only way to survive. In fact, multitasking is so vital that it crops up in “How to prepare for a job interview” sites. An article entitled “Examples of Multitasking in a Job Interview” by Matthew Salamone of Demand Media states:
Given the amount of calls, emails, meetings and deadlines people face every day it would be hard to imagine getting through it all without having the ability to multitask. … Having the ability to manage multiple assignments, set priorities, and adapt to changing conditions and assignments are often considered key competencies to employers.
The article goes on to explain that recruiters nowadays want to know how well a candidate can multitask. The article suggests a job candidate should expect questions like, “What do you do when you’re in the middle of a big project and you are asked to simultaneously support another project?”
I don’t think recruiters are looking for an answer of, “Laugh hysterically, then flee the building and head for cover,” but that’s what comes to mind when I hear such a question.
Struggles of the multitask-challenged
I freely admit it; I cannot multitask. My brain only has one channel. You’ve heard the saying “out of sight, out of mind”—my brain operates on “out of mind, out of sight.” In other words, I only see whatever my brain is thinking about right now. Everything else (and everyone else) is out of the picture. Completely.
If I have started dinner and then walk into the laundry room because the dryer has stopped, I will forget all about those pots on the stove until, as I reach into the dryer for another towel, I catch a whiff of singed onions or hear the hiss and spatter of pasta boiling over.
When it comes to cooking, my two most important assets are my sensitive ears and nose, which allow me to rescue most forgotten pots before total disaster has occurred and every meal looks like this.
While I am able to respond with alacrity when I notice those abandoned onions are burning, I do not, in general, handle interruptions well. When I am concentrating on something and someone interrupts me to ask a question off topic, my brain is struggles with the sudden change of focus.
I focus on one thing—and only one thing—at a time. The good news is that I can remain focused on that one thing for hours, because as far as my brain is concerned, that’s all there is. The bad news is that all other important tasks are forgotten. When I am writing a blog post, I am focusing on what I want to say, selecting the right words to say it, and finding photos to illustrate my point. I am not thinking about what to cook for dinner, or how to wrap up that script I need to finish before the deadline, or the meeting I am supposed to attend tonight, or the fact that my friends and relations even exist (let alone the rest of humankind.) I am thinking about the blog, the whole blog, and nothing but the blog.
So, getting back to the job interview question, I am not adept at handling two or more major projects with ease. If a multitasker is like a juggler, keeping several balls in the air at a time, I am more like the inept beginner who picks up a ball and tosses it in the air, then runs to the next ball and tosses that up, but by now the first ball has fallen to the floor, so I run to that one and toss it up again, but then the second falls to the floor…
Not a very pretty picture, is it?
Coping with multitasking disability
- Schedule in large blocks. Since my brain does not like switching from topic to topic, I work more efficiently when I give myself large blocks of time to focus on one thing, rather than twenty minutes of this, then ten minutes of that.
- Use timers. For me timers are life-savers. They keep track of time while I am lost to the world, then remind me when it’s time to change focus. I set timers for everything from boiling rice to remembering to leave for a doctor’s appointment.
- Write notes. When I am in the middle of one thing and am interrupted by a phone call or a random thought, writing it down allows me to think about it later rather than trying to switch gears right away. (It also serves as a reminder, keeping me from completely forgetting about it later.)
The good news
These days, more and more studies are finding that multitasking is not efficient, even for those who seem to be good at it. In actual fact, the brain can’t do two things at once. Multitasking is really rapid task-switching, and productivity experts warn against repeated task-switching, because every time your brain switches tasks, it needs time to recalibrate. Studies also show that, while trying to do two things at once, we actually do neither activity as well as we should. In other words, those savvy multitaskers who check their email in meetings often miss important information—because they aren’t paying complete attention.
I don’t need a scientific study to tell me multitasking isn’t good for me.
What about you? How do you cope with the demands of this busy, information-overloaded, I-want-it-all-this-instant society? Do you struggle to multitask, or do you go through the day juggling three, four, or five tasks at any given time?
When was the last time you put all distractions aside and focused on just one thing, or had a conversation where you gave the other person 100% of your attention?
Maybe it’s time to give focus a try.