by Peter Wallace, © 2007

Remember when the only real application of multi-tasking in our lives was the attempt to rub our tummies and pat our heads at the same time? Things have changed. Now, in an effort to have it all, right now, many of us our multi-tasking furiously.

The thing is, doing two things at once often makes us less efficient at doing both, resulting in lapses in performance. The other day, a lady, or I should say, a woman, walked into a McDonalds where I was waiting patiently to give my order. She was talking on her phone, and as a result of her inability to focus on two things at once, she failed to remember the childhood lesson of taking turns, and inserted herself in front of me in line to order her coffee… never slowing down in her conversation.

I was thinking of saying something, but I’m not sure she would have heard it, unless I was able to get her phone number and call her to speak my mind. We’ve all run into… or been run into by… drivers who think they can put on make-up, talk on their phones, or read the paper while driving. I’m sure there is some insurance industry study that pretty much proves that multi-tasking behind the wheel is a bad idea, though I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t do it too.

I find that when I’m busy, I sometimes multi-task while having a conversation with someone in person. It is unbelievably rude to do so, and when I notice I’m doing it, I try to stop, and try to focus my attention on the person who is talking.

Kids honestly believe that they can do homework and watch TV or listen to music, but every study that’s ever been done proves conclusively that they can’t. Factor in some text messaging and Internet Messenger, and it’s not hard to see why test scores in school aren’t improving much.

Some kinds of multi-tasking are okay, I think. Eating and reading at the same time works well, though it tends to make you want to do more of both, so a person may end up overweight, but well-read. Radio is good for multi-tasking, since it can entertain your mind while you’re doing mindless tasks, while still allowing you to do them reasonably well.

One of my least favorite forms of multi-tasking is when I’m at a restaurant counter, rental car counter, or hotel front desk, and the person helping me is also having a conversation with a colleague – usually complaining about the boss or another colleague. It makes a customer feel unimportant, and almost invisible, to go through a transaction without the waitperson making eye contact, or speaking directly to you.

In a larger sense, we’ve found our political system to be structured in such a way that people are both running the government and raising money to get re-elected at the same time. I’m not a fan of campaign finance reform, because so far it seems to have made things worse, and I think there are First Amendment issues, but that political multi-tasking thing isn’t good.

Raising children and trying to have a job, hobbies, and an active social life is a form of multi-tasking, and some people do it amazingly well. Others, I fear, fall short on the parenting side of the equation, but even full time parents sometimes feel that way.

Personally, I can multi-task without any problem. In fact, right now, I’m working on this column and an e-mail about meeting go having sixteen pages for this week multi-tasking next time too much sometime between 3pm and 5pm.


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