The Multitasking Paradox

Can I just say, straight off the bat, that this notion that all women can multitask, is just not true. I absolutely suck at it. Well, much less now than before but until my mid-twenties I could not even summon the split focus to make breakfast without burning the toast or over frying the eggs to the level of some kind of rubber-like substance. It’s something you adapt and grow into, as your lifestyle changes and things become more challenging on a daily basis. We’re all taught that multitasking ability is a good thing. If there was a personal attributes list, multitasking would get a giant green tick beside it every time. It even gets listed as specific requirement on some job placement ads. We consider it skilful and balanced to have the ability to do three things at the same time. More than that, we consider it vital.

A few years back, a professor discussed this whole obsession with doing more things at once. He said he refuses to do more than one thing at a time as it splits your total focus into fragments. He wouldn’t even drive his car with the radio on or allow his passengers to speak while he was behind the wheel. I was fascinated by this notion. Extreme as it seemed, he had a point. If you do two things at once, you’re immediately only assigning a ratio of 50% to each thing, or an imbalanced ratio like 70/30, leaving one of the two tasks seriously not being dealt with properly. Now imagine being a stay at home mom with four kids, trying to do five things at once. The end result is obviously that nothing will get done quite right. So why do we think it’s okay to live with divided attention spans and give people so much credit for doing it?

The multitasking paradox is the notion that you’ll get more things done in a day by doing more things at the same time, but the very result of that is that all things get done partially and you end up having to return to them to either redo, finish or fix what was done earlier. It’s kind of become the norm now to do several things at once. In fact, while the way we do things would have left a person from the early 20th century in a state of total distress, today the struggle is our inability to give our undivided attention to just one thing. Take the whole pulling out smartphones at dinners and get-togethers as an example. A few years ago that would have been nothing but dead rude and unacceptable. These days it’s a matter of ‘everyone knows it’s not polite but we’re all doing it, so…’

A sad side effect of this whole way of living is not so much in the fact that nothing gets done properly, it’s that we’re not really ever ‘there’ when we do things. Hours, days and weeks fly by with us just trying to keep all the balls in the air, leaving very few moments you can think back on and say you really immersed yourself in what you were doing or where you were. Whether you’re cooking or playing with the kids, if your mind is doing five other things while you throw a ball without even consciously focusing on your surroundings, you’re losing precious opportunity to experience moments that should be what make your days worth it. All those memories our parents and grandparents have of their younger years, the things they look back on and smile about when they’re sitting at retirement age with not much else to absorb their time and attention… How many memories will we be able to recall clearly when we reach that age? Will you really remember the day your first child took his first steps, or will it be fuzzy because you were on your phone checking your Facebook feed? What if, because of how we live now, with scattered focus and fixation on fleeting status updates, we end up having very little of worth to look back on? Many people in their last years of life have said you won’t be lying on your death bed, thinking about all the targets you didn’t reach at work or the salary you had back then. None of these things matter later on, yet they have become all-consuming now.

I’m not saying throw the smartphone out the window and turn to a life of manual labour and living off the land. Maybe just try to give your undivided attention to moments in your day or week, and clear your mind from worrying about projects, bills and deadlines. The most precious thing in this world that you can offer someone at this point in time, is your complete and undivided attention.

And don’t be so hard on yourself if you can’t manage to deal with doing five things at once – none of history’s greatest breakthroughs happened in a moment of multitasking. In fact, the greatest light bulb moments pioneering engineers and inventors had throughout history, happened when they took a break from their labs and did something relaxing. Newton was lying under a tree when the apple fell. Archimedes was sitting in a bath tub when things suddenly clicked into place. Sometimes the very best thing you can do to solve a problem or get clarity, is to do as little as possible.

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