The End of Multi-Tasking? (Cecilia Peartree)

Until recently I had thought of myself as a skilled multi-tasker. However, the combined impact of the pandemic and retirement has made me think again. These days I seem to have trouble accomplishing one task at a time, never mind several. To take just one recent example, I managed to buy a new car yesterday, after months of dithering. I was quite pleased with myself for getting through all the paperwork and various real-world actions involved in this, such as emptying the old car of years' worth of stuff including the four pairs of shoes I seemed to have thought necessary for driving, but it occurred to me that in the process I had put off doing all sorts of other, unrelated things, feeling as if I couldn't possible cope with doing anything else before this one major task was complete. 

While considering this, I realised I didn't know what the term multi-tasking really meant. I looked it up online to make sure what I thought of as multi-tasking was what everyone else meant by it. What I found was that there were all kinds of articles by psychologists saying it was impossible actually to do more than one thing at a time, so when people think they're multi-tasking it is more likely they are switching from one task to another and back very quickly so that they can get more than one thing done in the time. However the consensus seemed to be that this wasn't either a good thing or an efficient way of working. On the first page of the Google search results there was only one article that seemed to disagree with this, and interestingly that was on a site for employers.

I've been in some work situations at my former day job in which I came very close to trying to do more than one thing at a time. Because a large part of my job was helping people to use the organisation's database, I sometimes had to field panicky phone calls from other members of staff who had got stuck in various ways, either because they'd managed to lock themselves out of the database or because they had been unable to find what they were looking for or extract data in the format they wanted. Not only did the calls interrupt whatever I was trying to do, but I often tried to solve the problems while still on the phone, which meant speaking to them and using the computer at the same time. This didn't always produce good results, and sometimes I had to tell them I'd call back, ideally with a solution. I suppose this tends to back up the idea that multi-tasking is an inefficient use of time. On the other hand, I must admit my day job was sometimes so tedious that I actually welcomed the interruptions! I really missed them when we had to started working from home, and I found the effort of concentrating on work stuff all day completely exhausting.

Writing is a bit different, of course. I quite often have music playing in the background while writing, although this also seems to be frowned on by some experts. I don't really regard listening to music as a task exactly - it's more something that makes my writing environment more pleasant. Writing itself probably counts as a task, more so if it's a struggle! But I think now I'm retired and can organise my own time, I am more likely to concentrate on something for a while and specifically plan to do something else at a certain time. Because I have limited physical stamina, I often spread housework and gardening tasks out through the day. So I will tell myself I'll stop and load the dishwasher just before lunchtime, or sit in the garden for a while in the afternoon, weather permitting, and do 5 minutes' weeding from time to time. I don't think this is multi-tasking. Maybe it's more like time management. Either way, it's quite a luxury to be able to manage my own time after all those years.


Reb MacRath said…
This post was perfectly timed for me. A book I've been reading, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, addressed the same issue and cited scientific studies to back up the point. I'm convinced. Reading before or after working daily on a book isn't multi-tasking. But reading while knitting and writing report? Put that idea in the dumpster, I say.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Cecilia,

Timely post, as Reb says.

I've always considered the ability to multi-task a good thing -tasks usually performed concurrently, such that more than one item is completed at the end of a certain period.

Now ... I'm not so sure it's the most effective way to actually complete large tasks. Sure, I can turn on the dishwasher, the washing machine, and throw a cake in the oven, and then sit down to write ... but then the interruptions come from having to continue with the mundane chores (empty dishwasher, move clothes to the dryer, take out the cake ...). This is just one example as I don't bake, however, it means the writing becomes something to fit INTO the rest of the chores and it never gets completed.

Multi-tasking is about the ability to time manage for me now. Some things just won't get done (when I want it done), so setting priorities is a must.

Great post!

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